Remote meetings leave questions, hurdles for small towns
BOSTON (SHNS) – Shutesbury Town Clerk Grace Bannasch was taking a quick shower recently when the bells started going off.
Her home phone, cellphone and email notifications all began pinging her at once, alerting her that one of the local boards had lost the login information for the town’s Zoom account.
“They were all calling me and texting me and emailing me — ‘Grace, how do we get on?’ And I’m like okay, I’ll get back on my work computer and sort this out,” she said. “And so, it can be a few minutes, but it can come at any time of the day or night.”
Throughout the pandemic, Bannasch has spent at least a few hours a day serving as de facto IT support for the town of about 1,700, coordinating remote meeting schedules and getting board and committee members up to speed on video conferencing software.
A March 2020 order from Gov. Charlie Baker allowed public bodies to meet remotely, when many public buildings were closed and people were urged to avoid crowds.
Authorization for remote meetings was among a handful of pandemic-era policies that state lawmakers temporarily extended after the COVID-19 state of emergency ended last month.
While virtual public meetings are allowed until April 1, 2022, remote access is not mandated. The choice to return to fully in-person business, stay remote or develop a hybrid approach revolves around individual municipalities, their officials and budgets.
Bannasch thinks remote meeting access has been good for her town, boosting participation and keeping people informed during the public health crisis. But as lawmakers consider permanent guidelines around remote participation, she worries this system won’t be sustainable long term.
“We’re trying to figure out, how can we build a system that works with our limited resources for people with varying degrees of tech literacy?” Bannasch said. “Something that I’ve been concerned about going forward is if it adds too much labor to one person who’s already got a full-time job, like me as the town clerk or the town administrator or somebody who may be one of our volunteer committee members.”
Bob Cutler, president of the Massachusetts Town Clerks Association and the Foxborough clerk, said many communities are in the process of reevaluating remote meeting formats as more municipal offices reopen. For the most part, clerks in small towns have welcomed the extension of the pandemic-era rules, he said. And as long as updated guidelines allow for flexibility on a community-by-community basis, continued access should be feasible for these towns going forward.
“In some cases, they might not have the financial wherewithal that the bigger communities have, but they make it work, and many of them have gone back to in-person meetings with the hybrid model,” Cutler said.
In Norfolk, a slightly larger town, the transition has been relatively smooth. Town Administrator Blythe Robinson said it was a bit rough to get remote meetings up and running when the state of emergency began, but the town has since worked with its local cable station to upgrade meeting room equipment. Several boards are now meeting in a hybrid format, giving residents the option to attend in person or watch on Zoom.
“I think for us, it was a terrific learning experience that we could do this differently and people could get more involved than they were,” Robinson said. ” … We all had our hiccups with the dropped connection, trying to share your screen and one or two Zoom-bombs that weren’t so fun. But overall, it’s been good.”
For her part, Bannasch would like to see funding and support from the state, especially for towns with limited resources. State dollars would also make a difference for the town of Wales, said Town Clerk Leis Phinney.
“We have a very small IT budget, so I’m sure if there was support in terms of equipment that would be a big help,” Phinney said. “We’re pretty much using the camera that comes with the computer, aside from the Board of Selectmen meeting which was already being broadcast over cable.”
Beyond equipment like cameras and microphones, access to reliable broadband can also be a challenge. Partly due to limited internet access, Hawley has used telephone conferencing for remote meetings throughout the pandemic.
Town Clerk Pamela Shrimpton said that system has worked relatively well, especially once the town obtained a better microphone for board members and set up a 1-800 number for residents to call in without worrying about extra charges. But to offer video access in the future, the town would likely need help from the state to upgrade infrastructure.
“I personally think it would be great to include video,” Shrimpton said. “But I don’t think that we’re thinking of that because we’re in the process of putting up a wireless system, because we couldn’t afford regular fiber.”
Cutler said the Bay State’s small communities have always found ways of “making it work.” And Bannasch is confident that Shutesbury and other small towns can do just that — once they know what’s required.
“There are plenty of tools that are theoretically available to us, and we are plenty capable of being flexible and innovative and creative in our solutions,” she said. “But we need to know what the rules are going to be for remote access, for remote participation, in terms of not just open meeting law, but also public records law.”