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Upper Valley boards turn to tech to balance open government social distancing

  • Hartford selectboard chair Dan Fraser speaks with fellow selectboard members on the Zoom app on his laptop during the first meeting held remotely due to COVID-19 concerns in White River Junction, Vt., on March 25, 2020. Changes to the state's Open Meeting Law allow for boards and commissions to meet from different locations. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hartford Selectboard member Alan Johnson raises his hand to be recognized in the chamber by chair Dan Fraser while meeting remotely as CATV Tech Coordinator Thomas Bishop watches in White River Junction, Vt., on March 25, 2020. Changes to the state's Open Meeting Law allow for boards and commissions to meet from different locations due to COVID-19 concerns. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/25/2020 8:10:28 AM
Modified: 3/25/2020 8:30:06 PM

LEBANON — Municipalities trying to hold open meetings while encouraging social distancing are turning to tools normally used to connect distant offices and telecommuters.

Towns and cities across the Twin States plan to utilize teleconferencing software during the new coronavirus outbreak to allow for public participation at meetings held over the phone, online or in town offices that are closed to the public temporarily.

Officials say the software, which some communities are trying out for the first time this week, should allow boards and committees to keep local government running and accessible to the public while adhering to limits placed on public gatherings for health reasons.

“It’s going to be a learning curve,” Lebanon City Manager Shaun Mulholland said on Tuesday. “But it will allow people to participate without having to put themselves at risk.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers and state officials are acting to expand the use of teleconferencing as they attempt to stem the spread of COVID-19.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu signed an emergency order on Monday easing the state’s right-to-know law so that meetings can be held online or by phone, and the Vermont Senate approved a similar measure this week.

Lebanon livestreamed its first City Council meeting last week and intends to continue so long as the Granite State remains under a state of emergency, according to Mulholland.

The technology became necessary after the governor issued a temporary prohibition on scheduled gatherings of more than 10 people. That order effectively closes City Council meetings to the public, Mulholland said.

“You have nine councilors and me makes 10,” he said in a phone interview.

Under usual circumstances, New Hampshire’s right-to-know law requires that a quorum of all public bodies meet in-person and provide a physical space for people to access meetings.

However, those requirements were suspended under an order Sununu issued Monday. Government boards can now meet virtually so long as the public can join them by telephone.

Municipalities also must provide notice explaining how to access the meetings and a way for people to report technical problems.

“I think it seems to be a reasonable way to handle the current crisis,” said David Saad, president of the advocacy group Right to Know NH.

Saad said the order isn’t a perfect fix — some Granite Staters still may have difficulty calling in. But he’s more worried that teleconferencing will encourage boards to develop bad habits. They’re still required to keep minutes and make roll call votes, Saad said.

“Those in the business world have conducted telephone conference calls pretty regularly, but a lot of public bodies have not done so in the past,” he said. “They’ve just got to make sure they’re giving the public the same level of access that they’ve afforded board members to participate.”

Lawmakers in Vermont are taking similar steps to expand teleconferencing of public meetings.

The Vermont Senate on Tuesday passed a bill allowing municipal boards to meet virtually and provide public access by telephone “whenever feasible.”

Under the measure, which also needs House approval, municipalities would be required to inform people how to access the meetings and record them for future viewing.

Hartford Town Manager Brannon Godfrey said the bill would make it easier to limit public access to meetings and offer alternatives.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott has also signed an executive order limiting public gatherings to 10 people or less, leaving space for about four members of the public at Hartford’s Selectboard meetings, Godfrey said.

Anyone over the 10-person limit could be asked to leave or view the meeting from somewhere else within the town hall, he said.

Hartford, along with Norwich and Enfield, plan to use teleconferencing software Zoom to prevent such incidents. The software would allow people to either stream meetings or dial in to listen to proceedings, while officials could participate from their homes using the camera on their smartphone or computer.

Enfield Town Manager Ryan Aylesworth said about 80% of New Hampshire communities are looking to use Zoom. He purchased a Zoom Pro account, which goes for about $15 a month, that can host up to 100 people at any given time.

“Enfield’s plan, to the fullest extent possible, is to use video meetings across the board,” Aylesworth said, adding that policy starts with a Planning Board meeting that wasscheduled for Wednesday night.

Hanover also is exploring teleconferencing software for two hearings scheduled for the end of March and beginning of April, according to Town Manager Julia Griffin.

While all of the town officials are optimistic the meeting software will provide needed public access, they also warned that the technology is new to them, People can expect some hiccups early on, they said.

“No solution is perfect,” Aylesworth said. “But we’re doing the best we can.”

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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