Hybrid Selectboard meetings are not meeting everyone’s needs in Norwich

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 06-21-2024 6:44 PM

NORWICH — Residents are asking Selectboard members and town staff to resume attending meetings in-person, expressing concern about a decline in the quality of interpersonal interaction.

For more than three months, Tracy Hall has been mostly empty during Selectboard meetings, save for two of the five board members – Chairwoman Pam Smith and Priscilla Vincent – and occasionally a citizen or two.

The other three members, as well as Town Manager Brennan Duffy, have attended meetings remotely since the board’s reorganization meeting after Town Meeting in early March.

Vice-Chairwoman Mary Layton, board members Roger Arnold and Marcia Calloway and Duffy have not been in-person at the last seven meetings, according to the video recordings of the sessions.

“It would be lovely if we could all get here and have these meetings in person,” resident David Krimmel told board members at a meeting on June 13.

Under Vermont law, one or more members of a public body can attend a meeting “by electronic or other means without being physically present at a designated meeting location.”

Norwich and other communities adopted remote-only meetings at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Most communities have transitioned away from remote-only in the last couple of years.

The Norwich board held online-only meetings until January 2023.

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With a majority of Norwich board members using the remote-attendance option, Vincent said she worries about this shift to mostly online meeting participation becoming the new norm.

“I don’t think we should be doing the town’s business this way,” Vincent said in a phone interview. “It changes how we interact with each other” and with members of the public (and with members of the public).”

At a board meeting in March, Layton that she needs to participate remotely due to a family safety issue.

“It’s not a matter of disrespect to the public or to the board sometimes,” Layton said at last week’s discussion about remote participation.

Emails or phone messages left for Arnold, Calloway, Layton and Duffy seeking comment this week were not returned.

Norwich selectboard meetings are a hybrid-format, which allows the public to participate in meetings either in-person at Tracy Hall or remotely on Zoom. The Hartford Selectboard and Lebanon City Council use a similar hybrid format. Hanover Selectboard meetings, in contrast, are in-person only.

On May 8, Smith announced that Norwich Selectboard meetings would be on-line only, after the majority of board members said they would prefer attending remotely.

But after one meeting, Smith restored the hybrid format, saying that many residents voiced concerns about abandoning in-person meetings.

“While I cannot compel in-person attendance, I can, and do strongly urge all selectboard members and the town manager to return to in-person attendance for all selectboard meetings that are held in Tracy Hall,” Smith said in a written report to board members on May 22.

In an email this week, Smith declined to comment further on the issue.

Layton, Calloway and Duffy attended the board’s reorganizational meeting in-person on March 6. The board voted 3-2 that night to appoint Smith as chairwoman over Calloway, who had served in the role since November 2022.

Duffy had advocated for reappointing Calloway to the chair, saying that she played a central role in his decision to serve as Norwich’s interim town manager in 2022, and to become the town’s permanent hire last October.

Arnold, who attended remotely at the March 6 meeting, voted with Smith and Vincent in favor of Smith. Layton voted for Calloway, who voted for herself.

Resident Chris Katucki said he wishes the board members resume attending in-person, as it is a better format for engaging the public and encouraging community dialogue.

“There is real value to members of the board getting together with the town manager in the same physical space,” Katucki wrote in an email on Monday. “It’s only twice a month. I don’t understand why they don’t and wish someone would explain. I am disappointed.”

While strongly preferring in-person meetings, Vincent acknowledged that remote participation still is a valid means of attendance.

“Everyone is showing up for all our meetings — just not in person,” Vincent added. “(And) everyone comes to the meetings prepared, is conscientious and works hard.”

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.