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Williamstown Select Board Plans Return to In-Person Meetings
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
12:34AM / Wednesday, June 30, 2021
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Monday held what might be its last virtual meeting, but some residents are urging the panel to hold off on having in-person only meetings just yet.
Chair Andrew Hogeland said it is his intention to hold the board's July 12 meeting at Town Hall, the first time the body will have used the Selectmen's Meeting Room since March 2020.
The tradeoff is that the town does not yet have the capability to hold "hybrid" meetings, during which members of the public can participate via video conference during an in-person meeting.
"We expect within a couple of months we'll solve the hybrid technology," Hogeland said. "There will be a couple of months where we're going back to 'old school' meetings, but once the new technology is ready, there we go."
Like boards and committees throughout the commonwealth, the Select Board took advantage of Gov. Charlie Baker's suspension of certain provisions of the Open Meeting Law — including, notably, the requirement for a physical quorum of members at a meeting — to hold entirely virtual meetings since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Baker's emergency order expired this month, but the Legislature rushed through emergency legislation that preserved the OML exception among other pandemic-related provisions in Massachusetts General Law. That is what allowed the Select Board to meet again on Monday on the Zoom platform.
But given the fact that the commonwealth has ended indoor capacity limits — the restriction that made in-person meetings problematic — Hogeland said he wants to return the Select Board to its traditional Town Hall meetings two Mondays a month starting in mid-July.
Residents Randall Fippinger and Carrie Waara told the board that the virtual meeting format allows for more voices in the community to be heard.
"I strongly encourage the board to lean toward inclusivity, lean toward Zoom, lean toward a way that is more open to everybody, and then when hybrid technology comes in, transition to that," Fippinger said.
Hogeland said he is concerned that virtual meetings are less inclusive to members of the community who don't have good internet access or a good grasp of the technology to utilize it.
"I became aware incidentally that Zoom is inclusive for those who have it but not for those who don't have it, and in this town that's actually a substantial part of the population," Hogeland said. "I was on the steps of Town Hall last week, and a person was there because they had to go to the door to read the meeting notice that was posted. He said [his family] can watch it at home, but they don't have Zoom capacity at home.
"Some people can do Zoom. Some people can do in-person. Some people can't do either one. We'll try to work toward making those things work as quickly as we can."
Fippinger argued that virtual meetings have been more inclusive than in-person meetings.
"I agree we should be as inclusive as possible, but look at the data," he said. "Over the last year and a half, more people have participated via Zoom and via WilliNet than have in the past. I heard Jane [Patton] so many times, as chair, be surprised at the numbers. I encourage the board to go with what brings in the most amount of people, and, at the moment, it seems like Zoom."
It is undeniable that the Select Board has received considerably more public comment over the last year than in any other 12-month period over the last decade — perhaps as much as it did in the last decade combined.
What is less clear is whether that increased public dialogue is due to the forum or the topics under discussion.
The Select Board held its first virtual meeting on March 23, 2020. It lasted 70 minutes and featured one comment during the "petitioners requests" period, from a resident who objected to the color scheme of recently acquired police vehicles.
On April 13, the board met for 87 minutes, about 30 of which centered on public comments advising the board to push the Lanesborough Selectmen to act on a pending vacancy on the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee.
On April 27, the board met for 47 minutes with no comments during petitioners request. Likewise, no one spoke from the floor during the open comment period on May 11, May 26 or June 8.
On June 22, four weeks after the murder of George Floyd, the Select Board meeting lasted 2 hours, 46 minutes and included extensive public comment on police reform and social justice issues — the start of a trend that only intensified a couple of months later, after the release of federal lawsuit against the town, town manager and its police chief.
Hogeland mentioned a couple of times that the ideal is to be able to continue providing access for residents to participate remotely while meeting in person. Both he and interim Town Manager Charlie Blanchard said the town is working with the town's community access television station, WilliNet, to make that happen.
Jeffrey Johnson said that at a time when the technology exists for self-driving cars, it should not be a heavy lift to institute the hybrid meeting model.
"I think the issue really is for the WilliNet equipment and to have it be compatible to have televised meetings along with the Zoom aspect," Blanchard said. "I think [WilliNet Executive Director Deb Dane] is working on that."
Hogeland promised an update on the progress of the hybrid technology at the July 12 meeting.
In other business on Monday, the Select Board put out a call for volunteers to serve on the town's Council on Aging and its Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee. The remaining members of the DIRE Committee are also involved in vetting potential new members, including from the list of volunteers who applied when the committee was created last summer.
Hogeland asked that interested candidates complete the form on the town's website, submit a letter of interest or reach out to a member of the Select Board by July 8 with the hope that the board will have a list of names to consider and, perhaps, make appointments at the July 12 meeting.
The board also approved an alteration of premises for alcohol service at Mezze on Cold Spring Road. Attorney Sherwood Guernsey, appearing on behalf of the restaurant, explained that the license change will allow continued outdoor service that started during the pandemic.
"The alteration of premises is using the picnic area they have utilized effectively to serve during the pandemic, just to the north of their building," Guernsey said. "Due to the governor's order being recently extended, they can use that now. We weren't aware [of the extension] when we applied, and, more importantly, we want to make it permanent."
The Select Board voted 5-0 to approve the change.
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