NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Some city councilors are itching to get back into their City Hall chambers — and let the voice of the people be heard again.
The nine-member council held its last meeting in person
on March 24, days after the governor's order to limit gatherings of more than 10 people to contain the novel coronavirus pandemic. Councilors, mayor, city clerk and press had spread out through council chambers that night with no public allowed in.
Since then, they've been meeting remotely on the Zoom digital platform that allows the public to listen in over Northern Berkshire Community Television but not to participate.
The issue's come up at the last two council meetings, last week's regular meeting and Tuesday's special meeting to review the budget.
When it came time again to vote to suspend Council Rules 10 and 11 that deal with hearing of visitors and public comment, councilors on Tuesday voted against.
"I'm going to vote no on this, this evening," said Councilor Jason LaForest. "Unfortunately, I feel very strongly that this is something that should have been resolved. Already we're three months into COVID and, I do hope that we'll be meeting in council chambers again soon, but I voted yes on this several times hoping it would be resolved the following week and we're continuing to see a delay and not allowing the public to participate is just not fair or frankly ethical."
The city has been looking into a different format for Zoom that would allow for controlled participation.
"The Zoom webinar platform allows you to have panelists, which would be the councilors and anyone that speaking on the agenda," explained Councilor Benjamin Lamb. "And then what can happen is, you can have 100 people watching it and they can raise their hand and there's an actual function for them to be brought in.
"So they can observe the whole thing live and they can speak during public comment periods."
But councilors are grumbling on why that hasn't been done sooner when other communities have been providing public access for weeks.
Councilor Lisa Blackmer said last week that she's been on plenty of remote meetings for smaller towns recently that already have that capacity. And she didn't think council chambers would have the space for social distancing if they, the public and the administration was all in there.
"I'm still a little apprehensive about meeting in public and I think having the public into that space is is not a good idea," she said of council chambers. "So I think it's harder for them to participate if we're in the meeting [space], whereas if we're all Zooming and they can Zoom in, then they can participate."
The committees have been meeting over Zoom with public participation, she noted, and asked if the City Council was still private. Lamb confirmed that the council seems to be the only meeting that doesn't provide a Zoom link.
(The councilors, administration, any participants and the media are emailed the link beforehand.)
"I wholeheartedly echo all these sentiments," said Councilor Jessica Sweeney at the June 9 meeting. "I've been getting a lot of feedback and frustration from folks that I've been talking to about really wanting to engage with us in these meetings in some way."
She asked if it could be done via video outside City Hall or through Facebook Live.
Several councilors advocated for returning to City Hall.
Councilor Marie T. Harpin noted that some communities have continued to meet in person, and mentioned Adams.
The Adams Selectmen had been initially doing partial remote meetings, with some members at Town Hall and others calling in. More recently, they have meeting together — but 6 feet apart — and having town staff in to report and media to attend.
Adams officials still broadcast over NBCTV and Zoom with the public able to participate over the Zoom line. Pittsfield also has call-in capability and other towns and school districts have used Cisco Webex and Google Meetings, both of which allow for some public participation.
"There's plenty of room in council chambers for, you know, the individuals that need to be there," Laforest said last week. "We certainly could come up with a way to have individuals be present so that they can make their voice heard for the open forum period. We may need to limit it to the beginning of the meeting have individuals come in one by one and then leave after they've had their two minutes but at this point, with basic precautions there's no reason that we shouldn't be able to meet together in public."
Blackmer, however, thought Adams was more of an exception in her experience and that the council should take into account whether people would be comfortable at this point in an in-person setting.
Councilor Wayne Wilkinson, who logged on after the vote on Tuesday because connection issues, had already made his sentiments known the week before.
"The Zoom concept of being a city councilor really doesn't appeal to me so much," said Wilkinson at the time. "I know we need to do it but I'm kind of tired of it. Council meetings in my room in my basement doesn't exactly ... . I'm tired of it, it's time to move on and get back to work."
Councilor Robert Moulton Jr. agreed: "Let's be Councilor Wilkinson. Let's be pathfinders, let's move on."
So on Tuesday, when the motion to suspend the rules allowing the public to participate came up again, it was shot down 5-3.
"I'm not aware of anybody in the room who wants to speak, so I'm not sure where that leave us," said Council President Paul Hopkins.
The council also rejected a suspension of rules to confirm an appointment on the License Board as not an urgent matter.
Mayor Thomas Bernard had asked for Michael Obasohan to be appointed to the License Board to fill the unexpired term of Jeffrey Polucci, who died the week before. Bernard said it was important to bring up the three-person board to full strength as it was now dealing with approvals for outdoor dining plans in relation to the state's pandemic reopening.
Councilors did not think it needed to be done at a special meeting and voted 6-3 to reject the suspension of rules, with Hopkins, Lamb and Keith Bona voting in favor.