PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The City Council supports the continuation of remote public participation when meetings return to in-person.
Not yet ready to settle on a final plan, the Ordinance and Rules subcommittee unanimously voted to table a petition from Ward 1 Councilor Helen Moon requesting that city and council continue to offer a virtual and call-in option beyond COVID-19 for all public meetings.
"I think that COVID has taught us that we can have in-person meetings, but we can also offer virtual meetings," Moon said. "And while we have outliers that can take up a lot of space in our virtual spaces, I think that the net is positive when we are bringing democracy to a larger segment of our population and so I think that this is a meaningful change, allowing people who don't typically have the capacity to join in-person meetings for whatever reason that they have to continue to participate."
The panel will reconvene at its next meeting to work out the details and potentially approve the ordinance.
In proceeding weeks, councilors will individually think about the parameters of continuing virtual call-ins, consult with attorneys, and come prepared with questions to the next O&R meeting on June 7.
Based on Gov. Charlie Baker's orders and depending on public health data, the city is aiming to open municipal offices full time on June 1 and estimates that in-person meetings would resume then.
City Solicitor Stephen Pagnotta clarified that the Open Meeting Law does allow remote and in-person participation at public meetings as long as the technology is sufficient enough for everyone to hear one another.
"There's nothing in the Open Meeting Law that would prohibit a hybrid type of a meeting subject to technology," he added.
Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Maffuccio questioned if Pittsfield Community Television — which broadcasts city meetings on a variety of platforms — has the capability of running a City Council meeting in person while offering it as a hybrid method.
"I'm just wondering if that would happen in the same process that when we have presentations during City Council it's broadcast to the large television screen in our council chamber, and that is actually broadcast on PCTV," Moon responded.
"And so whenever there's a presentation, whatever is being broadcast on that screen, is being what is sent out on PCTV airwaves, I would imagine that it would be a similar situation where the Zoom screen would be up in the TV in presentation."
Councilor at Large Earl Persip III supports the petition and said that it will bring democracy to more people.
His biggest concern is the "bog down" that has occurred at Zoom meetings. He cited individuals who regularly call in opposition to the 877 South St. cell tower, many of whom call from out of state.
"I think that I've heard from a lot of residents that they don't like that," he said. "There are some residents who were kind of checked out of those meetings because we spent hours on the phone with people from all over the world, so sometimes it just becomes a little too much, and I'm not promoting one way or the other, I just think it should be a discussion at the next meeting."
Ward 5 Councilor Patrick Kavey agreed that the panel has a "lot more" to discuss the petition. He brought up the financial costs of Zoom in the post-pandemic world when it is not necessary.
"I do think it'll be appropriate for us to have another meeting on this so that our IT director can be here and made sure that we can do that on the city side and let us know whether or not we're going to be keeping Zoom after the pandemic and how much it would cost us and whether we'd have to use a different program," he said. "There are a lot of questions, but I think that with the right people and the next meeting that we have they can answer all of them and I do think this is something we can move forward with."
Moon added that Boston is looking at a similar option for future city meetings. She clarified that remote participation is to be used by the public and members of the City Council would be expected to attend in person.
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