A Year of COVID: Remote public meetings may not go away with the virus  

  • Voting took place outside at Epsom Bible Church in Epsom on Tuesday as election officials worked under a tent. Melissa Curran / Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 3/11/2021 6:09:12 PM

Remember the simple traditions of the annual town and school meetings, and the time when attending a select board meeting meant trudging to town hall on a weeknight?

Annual meetings are typically held in March, around Election Day. Voters gather in school gyms and auditoriums to discuss budgets and expenditures, part of a process, once bolted to the Granite State’s landscape, that created a community dialogue and illustrated democracy in its purest form.

Similarly, all kinds of public meetings – from school board to zoning boards – have been required to be held, live and in person at school and town buildings.

All of that has changed lately, part of the ever evolving rhythm of life brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. This year, towns and schools were invited to postpone annual meetings to a warmer, more desirable time of year. Regular meetings of elected officials are now routinely held remotely with members of the public tuning in by video feed.

Zooming to a meeting has become a phrase that needs no further explanation.

While Secretary of State Bill Gardner remains a stickler for staging Town Meetings in March, a bill has been proposed to keep the remote option of all public meetings open long after Gov. Chris Sununu’s executive order expires. 

House Bill 216 was created by Rep. Lucy Weber of Walpole and backed by representative Mary Beth Walz of Bow, both Democrats.

“My intent is not to mandate something,” Weber said by phone, “but to give people more tools if they choose to use them. I’ve seen more participation in remote meetings, especially in Concord. People can listen to a meeting from their desk or while driving. I relish the fact that more can participate.”

The bill would amend the right to know law so that public meetings no longer need a physcial meeting space – everyone could meet remotely from their home computer. It would require that the public be able to access meetings by telephone, “with additional access possibilities by video or other electronic means. Public notices for meetings will be required to be posted with all of the information necessary for remote public access. As for technology issues, members of the public must be able to communicate to the board of there are problems with remote access.

“The meeting shall be adjourned if the public is unable to access the meeting,” the bill states.

The bill is still in the House Judiciary Committee and its fate is uncertain, but it signals a desire to keep in place some of the changes forced upon us by COVID. 

This new method of meeting could benefit senior citizens, people with health problems and others with transportation concerns, yet the idea didn’t become widespread until COVID changed the playing field.

“I’m not even sure if people ever thought about (meeting remotely),” Walz said, “and not many people were familiar with Zoom anyway.”

Gardner, who’s serving his 23rd term as secretary of state, and whose role gives him power to alter town and school meeting schedules, has never been in favor of incorporating flexibility to juggle dates.

“If it’s a standard time of year, everyone knows it’s March and it’s time,” Gardner said. “It’s so much better to have a standard. This will be dealt with after this (pandemic) ends.”

In the Suncook Valley, Chichester’s select and school boards pushed the school meeting to May 8, its Election Day to May 11 and its town meeting to May 15. Town and school meetings and school classes have gone virtual in an attempt to move forward, at last somewhat.

Chichester’s plight mirrored obstacles that all towns and cities, big and small, have experienced the past 12 months, all over the country.

“These days, I don’t anticipate anymore,” Chichester School Principal Jessica Snider said earlier this winter. “The plan for right now is we’re looking to be outside in May, and that might allow time to solve the problem.”

Even before COVID, postponing school and town meetings was become more commonplace.

In 2017, a giant snowstorm forced 70 towns to reschedule their meetings.

In 2018, another snow storm made life difficult for town officials, but this time, in accordance with a state proclamation, towns were ordered not to change their meeting dates. 

As the snow melted, the state tried to figure out who had the final say when it came to postponements. Some said the moderator, others said the secretary of state.

Smooth sailing returned in 2019, before our new COVID-lifestyle had fully taken shape last March. Some towns squeezed in their March meetings just before shutdown orders were issued. The few that postponed tried new ways of meeting, like serveral attempts at a drive in meeting in Hopkinton that rolled into July.

These days, though, COVID and the concerns it brings have finally wrapped around our heads like the elastic cords from a mask.

This year, about half the towns have stayed the course – holding socially-distanced in-person meetings with remote access for residents to watch – but not particpate in the proceeding – from home.

Pembroke opted to keep its Election Day on March 9, and hold its town meeting on March 13. Those dates were not changed, remaining part of the tradition that had for decadeshas flowed like sap from a maple tree each spring.

Pembroke’s school meeting, however, has been bumped to May 1 and will be held outside. Towns marching forward with meetings as scheduled will offer Zoom viewing.

Both factors are a sign of the times and, perhaps, a sign of things to come.

“I don’t like everything about it,” Weber said. “The quality of concentration is different at home, but this will open it up to more people, and that’s always a good thing.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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