“Pretty much, Zoom is out”: Most area towns discontinuing virtual meeting participation

  • The Peterborough Select Board meets via Zoom on May 4. Courtesy

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 7/1/2021 5:13:11 PM

Virtual meetings became ubiquitous for town boards and committees over the past year. For some towns, the expiration of the state emergency order heralded a return to the pre-pandemic status quo, while other towns don’t want to give up the virtual format – and the wider access it provides.

The State stopped allowing exclusively virtual municipal meetings on June 11. Now, every meeting must have a quorum of town board members in-person at a publicly accessible venue. Once that’s established, however, boards may offer a hybrid option in which additional board members call or Zoom in. They can also provide an option for members of the public to participate virtually, or at least view the meeting remotely.

That was all possible pre-pandemic, but the past year made remote participation commonplace, and some want to keep it up.

“Having the Zoom meetings allowed me to still be involved or at least watch while I was able to do other things, like cook dinner or clean the house,” Temple resident Tiffany Hoey said of the past year’s virtual ZBA hearings. Although Hoey “never was into town politics – ever,” she started tuning in to follow the Ben’s Sugar Shack expansion proposal over months of virtual ZBA meetings.

“I started to see that there’s a lot that goes into these decisions,” she said, adding that it helped her understand how the town works and makes decisions, and where and why her tax dollars are being used. “I believe a lot of people were more involved with the town this year (or so I hear) due to the availability given from Zoom meetings,” she said.

Recently, though, Hoey had to work during an exclusively in-person Select Board meeting, at which the Board discussed a building permit she submitted. They approved it, and Hoey said she was grateful for that, but she wished she could have tuned in to watch it virtually. “I really hope they make this available for all meetings so more people in town are aware of the decision making processes by our town officials,” she said.

Although Temple residents have requested accommodations for continued virtual participation or livestreaming during meetings, the Select Board is staying exclusively in-person for now, Select Board Chair Ken Caisse said. “We plan to do something, but what we can do and what we're able to do are two different things,” he said, noting there’s no money in this year’s budget to start livestreaming meetings. Other town boards are allowing for continued remote participation, Caisse said.

In that way, Temple joins area towns Greenville, Hancock, Mason, Greenfield, Rindge, and Antrim, whose Select Boards have returned to meeting in person with no immediate plans for remote participation or livestreaming. Other town committees, such as planning and zoning boards, may choose to continue offering a virtual option, Town Administrators in Rindge, Greenfield, and Antrim said.

“We don’t really have the infrastructure,” for a virtual option since in-person meetings resumed, Mason Select Board Chair Louise Lavoie said. Although the Town Hall meeting space has WiFi, they don’t have a good setup for livestreaming or virtual participation, she said. “It wouldn’t be a full experience,” she said, citing the difficulty of hearing and being heard while participating in an in-person meeting via a laptop. No members of the public have requested virtual accommodations, she said.

There are some benefits to meeting in-person, Greenfield Town Administrator Aaron Patt said, like easy access to physical property tax maps and other reference materials in the town offices. However, Patt said he appreciates the success some towns had with public participation in virtual meetings. He himself saw new faces during virtual meetings on hot-button issues like broadband over the past year, and he’s open to finding a way to accommodate any requests for virtual participation that might come his way. “Certainly I would love it if a resident said, “Hey, I’m interested in coming or making a presentation, but I’d be more interested in doing this remotely,”” Patt said.

Meanwhile, Francestown, Peterborough, and Wilton Select Boards have abandoned virtual participation options, but they continue to livestream in-person meetings as prior to the pandemic.

“Pretty much, Zoom is out,” Francestown Town Administrator Jamie Pike said, save for virtual library programming that had been previously scheduled. Select Board and Planning Board meetings will continue to be livestreamed and archived on the town’s website as usual, he said.

Peterborough’s Select Board room first got set up for livestreaming around 2007, and recently underwent a $57,000 upgrade, which replaced cameras and broadcast equipment, Town Administrator Nicole MacStay said. “It was nothing for us to adapt to the post-COVID world,”  she said. “Other communities starting from zero, I can certainly see where that’s pretty daunting,” she said. However, like Mason, Peterborough’s meeting room isn’t set up to deliver a high-quality Zoom experience during in-person meetings, MacStay said, so the town abandoned the platform, along with the Facebook livestreaming it enabled. Meetings continue to air live on Comcast Channel 22, UStream, and YouTube, but there’s currently no capacity for members of the public to participate virtually, MacStay said, and she hasn’t received any requests to that effect. 

Several area school districts have also permanently integrated virtual access to their school board meetings.

The Jaffrey-Rindge School District started livestreaming School Board meetings early on in the pandemic, and now upload recorded meetings on the District’s YouTube page, SAU47 Broadcast, Jaffrey-Rindge Communications Coordinator Nick Handy said. The District set their intention to start livestreaming in a 2019 communications plan, Handy said, but the pandemic accelerated their rollout.  

“We have noticed a big uptick in attendance with these virtual meetings,” Handy said. “Prior to livestreaming, we had many meetings with no one in attendance. If we had an audience, it was usually under five people,” he said. Now, there are usually between 10 and 30 virtual attendees, and there’s been as many as 150 in certain meetings, he said.  The School District was able to use COVID-19 relief funds to purchase camera and audio equipment to aid livestreaming, which have also been put to use livestreaming graduations, theatrical productions, and aiding student projects, Handy said.

The Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative School District will continue to make audio recordings of School Board meetings available to the public post-emergency order, something that wasn’t done prior to the pandemic, Superintendent Bryan Lane said. The ConVal School District was also looking into livestreaming options, per School Board meeting minutes on June 1.

Dublin, Jaffrey, and New Ipswich plan to continue offering remote participation options. "You always have situations where people just can’t physically make it to a meeting for one reason or another," New Ipswich Town Administrator Scott Butcher said. In his eyes, the ability to remotely attend meetings improves transparency in town operations – a positive in the town’s COVID-19 experience, he said. The town plans to continue airing meetings on Zoom, recording and uploading them to YouTube afterward, he said, and they’re looking into livestreaming technology, too. Beyond the resident requests he’s received, Butcher said that remote participation can be useful for outside parties, such as engineering firm reps who would otherwise have to drive to town to participate in Planning Board hearings.

In Jaffrey, some larger boards and committees, like the Planning Board, are continuing to offer hybrid meetings split between in-person and Zoom participation, Town Manager Jon Frederick said. The public can participate remotely in any meeting with a Zoom option, he said, and the town will continue livestreaming all meetings and posting them on their website.

Although Frederick is unaware of any resident demand for continued virtual participation, town employees have really benefited from remote meetings, he said. Staff meetings continue to take place over Zoom, he said. “Everybody wants to keep it that way,” he said, citing convenience and substantial time savings in tasks like working up the ten year road paving plan. “If we tried to do that in person, it would have taken days,” he said.

Frederick said he believes Jaffrey’s annual Zoom subscription fee costs $150. It cost the town between $5,000 and $7,000 to initially set up the equipment, wiring, and cameras for livestreaming four years ago, he said, and they pay an annual licensing fee of about $500 to stream meetings over their website, he said.

Most town administrators interviewed were unsure whether virtual meetings increased participation as compared to in-person meetings, barring the pandemic.

Select Boards in Bennington, Sharon, and Lyndeborough almost exclusively held in-person meetings throughout the pandemic, and none have had any discussion about instituting a virtual participation option post-pandemic, according to their town administrators.

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