When to return in person & how to continue virtual public participation
As mask mandates lift, vaccinations continue and Rhode Island returns to “normal,” East Greenwich officials are looking to combine the best aspects of remote and in-person public meetings going forward.
Both Town Council President Mark Schwager and School Committee Chairwoman Anne Musella said attendance at public meetings rose significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic when all meetings went “virtual.” Some meetings had nearly 500 participants, according to Musella.
Although Musella credited this to some of the topics discussed recently, such as students going back to school after months of distance learning, she and Schwager said remote meetings have been more accessible. For example, it’s easier for people with family and work commitments, and for people with disabilities, to watch a livestream at home. Musella added that online meetings have allowed for more flexibility for participants, since citizens can choose just to participate in discussion on legislation they’re personally interested in.
“We’ve been talking about remote access for the public for town meetings for many years and it wasn’t until we had this crisis that we’re forced to adopt it,” Schwager said. “We’ve gotten a lot of the bugs out of the system and a lot of the early meetings were hard. Sometimes crisis triggers innovation. I’m hoping we could maintain those positive aspects going forward.”
This doesn’t mean the end of in-person meetings, however. Schwager said it’s harder to determine the tone of speakers during meetings online compared to in-person, and Musella said there’s always the risk of technical difficulties online, although they have been mitigated with practice.
“There’s no substitute for seeing people’s facial expressions, having a quick chat before or after, there’s really no substitute for that,” Musella said. “And we have three new School Committee members but we’ve really only seen them as dismembered faces at meetings.”
Remote meetings going forward have also raised some government transparency concerns. John Marion, executive director of the nonpartisan government watchdog group Common Cause Rhode Island, said online meetings have allowed for greater public participation. But Marion also said some municipalities have used virtual meetings as an excuse for hiding information from the public. He cited the Providence City Council’s Finance Committee passing its city budget without sharing its contents with the public or journalists as an example of this.
“What we need is some sort of long-term policy that captures the best practices that bring the public closer to their government through their technology but don’t allow them to shield it,” Marion said.
Musella said the School Committee will discuss options for a hybrid between remote and in-person meetings at Tuesday’s meeting, while Schwager said the Town Council will discuss the future of meetings after budget season finishes in June.
The challenge right now, according to Schwager, is finding technology that allows for both in-person and remote participation at the same time.
“Meetings could be in-person, but people could participate remotely through a chatroom,” Schwager said. “Or it could be simultaneous Zoom with the chamber set up to stream. We’ve streamed meetings on [town software program] Granicus before, but that does not have two-way communication right now. So we’d have to set something up either through a chat or a simultaneous Zoom so they can be in contact with the council.”
Another question is the potential cost of this technology. Schools Director of Technology Steven Arnoff said at the School Committee meeting Tuesday the cheapest alternative may be meeting at Town Hall, which is already set up to stream meetings. But the School Committee left off making any decisions for now.
East Greenwich will have to keep an eye on state laws regarding public meetings. While the Rhode Island Department of Business Regulation has temporarily required public bodies to meet virtually during the pandemic, it is uncertain if this will be extended, according to Schwager.