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MacKinnon attends legislative meeting on computer

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County Legislator Alex A. MacKinnon, R-Fowler, did not want to skip meetings while vacationing in Florida, so he is in attendance in image, although not in body.

Mr. MacKinnon is coming to meetings via Skype, a service that connects people via webcam, an Internet connection and a computer.

“I think it worked very well,” he said. “It was easy to do. It doesn’t cost anything. So far, our total investment, other than the time invested by IT, is zero.”

Mr. MacKinnon said he wanted to try remote participation to stay informed and to test the kind of technology that might make some criminal court appearances less costly in the future.

The county is exploring how electronics could help make its far-flung court system more manageable. Defendants have the right to appear physically in court, but the state Legislature is talking about amendments to criminal procedure law that would permit some electronic court appearances.

If allowed, the virtual world could benefit police, district attorneys and public defenders who travel from court to court.

“I think some of the judges may find it a lot easier,” Mr. MacKinnon said. “I think it has implications for a lot of things.”

Mr. MacKinnon’s online attendance is legal as it counts as a videoconference covered by the state’s statutory definition of a meeting, County Attorney Michael C. Crowe said.

“The Open Meetings Law includes provisions that permit meetings of public bodies to be conducted by means of videoconferencing that enables members of a public body, as well as any others who may be present at a location in which a member is participating, to observe and hear the participants,” Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government, wrote in 2011.

If a meeting includes videoconferencing, the notice for the session must tell the public that it will be used, identify the locations, and state that the public has the right to attend the meeting at any of the locations, according to Mr. Freeman’s memo.

That would mean anyone in St. Augustine, where Mr. MacKinnon is vacationing, could join him there for the meeting.

There were a few logistical problems at a recent committee meeting attended by Mr. MacKinnon remotely. He could not see the entire room at once, raising questions about whether he could legally vote.

“It’s possible to see everybody by twisting the cameras,” Mr. MacKinnon said. “Those are the details you have to work out.”

The computer monitor bearing Mr. MacKinnon’s image was behind the committee chairman so Mr. MacKinnon could not be seen easily if he wished to speak.

The computer turned off at one point but quickly rebooted. Hearing everyone was a minor problem, Mr. MacKinnon said.

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