(La Porte County, IN) - An elected official was present on ZOOM but stripped of his voting authority during the La Porte County Commissioners meeting on Wednesday because he wasn’t physically in his seat.
Commissioner Rich Mrozinski has been living at a second home in Florida for about the past six weeks.
Before leaving, a new policy allowing each commissioner to attend one meeting a year by ZOOM without recuperations was supported by his colleagues on the three member governing body Joe Haney and Connie Gramarossa.
A commissioner will lose their ability to vote on matters during any other sessions they attend on ZOOM, according to the policy.
No action was taken until Mrozinski attended his third consecutive regularly scheduled session of the commissioners this year on ZOOM.
Haney motioned his right to vote during the meeting be taken away. His request was supported by Gramarossa.
Mrozinski citing primarily a medical condition argued he should be exempt from the policy and state law and granted a waiver for medical reasons. He referred to right to privacy laws for not revealing details of the medical condition he blamed for his extended period of time in Florida.
Mrozinski, who saw combat duty in the Vietnam War, did say he received treatment for his condition at a Veterans Administration medical facility.
Haney didn’t believe the claims from Mrozinski, who has spent recent winters at a second home beside the Atlantic Ocean near Orlando.
“I will not recognize snow birding as a valid medical excuse for you not to be here this evening,” Haney said.
Haney then ordered the public record show Mrozinski not present for the meeting.
Mrozinski also questioned whether such authority was legal considering he was elected to represent the public.
“You’re not my boss,” he said.
In addition, he said Haney was not qualified to make a ruling on his medical issue since he’s not a physician.
La Porte County Attorney Andrew B. Jones said the action reflected what’s allowed under a new state law.
“He has the power to make that determination as the chair of this meeting,” he said.
Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt said a state law adopted in 2021 gives local governing bodies permission to adopt rules governing attendance.
Coming out the pandemic, Britt said state lawmakers did not want elected officials continuing to rely on ZOOM to attend meetings as they did previously for good reason to reduce exposure to COVID-19.
Britt said the intent of the legislature was to “avoid situations where you’re legislating from a far, but they also wanted to give flexibility. One of the concerns was the snow bird part of it. They frowned upon that and they wanted to set the parameters,” he said.
Under state law, Britt said waivers from physical attendance can also be granted to deal with death of a relative, military service, injury or threatened injury to a person or property. He said the chairman of the local governing body has authority to grant or deny a request for a waiver.
Britt said right to privacy laws regarding health apply only to a select number of people such as doctors. He said patients can provide their own medical information or instruct their doctors to do it to back up their claims for having to attend meetings remotely.
After the policy was passed, Mrozinski alleged it was retaliation by his political opponents to try and cost him his winters in The Sunshine State.
Haney said the policy was designed to better serve citizens he felt prefer hearing from or engaging physically with their elected representatives.
“We don’t want people raising taxes from a beach in St. Petersburg,” Britt said.