In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state legislature allowed an exemption to the Open Meeting Law to allow public meetings to be held remotely via Zoom. There were some challenges in those early days with the new format — lots of people having difficulty getting on, the occasional “Zoom bomber” interupting meetings with profanity or porn, and lots and lots of people being reminded, “You’re muted.”
But things settled in nicely, and there were some clear advantages to the Zoom meetings. One of them was a lot more participation by the public.
The special exemption for public meetings is scheduled to end on July 15. Already the House has passed a bill that would extend that exemption through March 13, 2023. There is some pushback from the Massachusetts Municipal Association to this particular bill, because it would require remote access for every public meeting, which the association says could be a financial hardship for some cities and towns.
We don’t think this is a bad idea at all.
We now understand that Zoom and other online platforms are easy to use and accessible to the public. You don’t have to be in the same area code, let alone the same country, to participate in your local government. For the Island, that means seasonal property owners have the ability to tune into meetings that may affect their property taxes on the Vineyard during budget deliberations in January, February, and March.
Some Island towns have returned to fully in-person meetings, and we think it’s too soon. Oak Bluffs has been holding in-person meetings for the past two months. Board members, with the exception of Gail Barmakian, have ignored the recommendations of their own board of health, which advises wearing masks indoors to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Same with the Aquinnah select board. In that town, the select board has been meeting in person for about four months. Most of the board members didn’t wear masks at the indoor meetings, even ahead of that town’s premature decision to make masks completely optional as of July 1.
We applaud the West Tisbury select board. They have held a couple of in-person meetings to conduct interviews of job applicants, and every board member was masked up and taking the recommendations of the town’s health department seriously.
The Island is seeing an expected surge in cases, and is at high risk for community spread, based on Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data — and the CDC is warning that new subvariants are out there, causing this uptick across the country. We believe the reported number of cases is a lot lower than the actual spread, because so many people are doing at-home testing and not reporting the results. We’ve even had personal experience attempting to report a case, only to be told by the health official that they’re not really keeping track anymore.
As for the severity of the disease, it still has a lot to do with who gets it. While we’ve heard some variants have milder symptoms, we have personal experience with some pretty severe bronchial issues and flu-like symptoms lasting more than a week, even though the individual was vaccinated and boosted.
But even if COVID was completely gone, we’d still argue that providing remote access to meetings is something that every town should strive to do. If it requires an investment in technology — make the investment. If it requires training — pay for the training.
The Steamship Authority has done a good job with hybrid meetings for much of the pandemic, and should continue to offer them into the future. No longer does someone from Nantucket have to try to make it to Martha’s Vineyard when a meeting is scheduled on the Island, and vice versa.
Is it better to be in person? For sure. But not everyone can drop what they’re doing to get to a 4:30 pm select board meeting or a 9:30 am SSA board meeting on a weekday. But they can fire up a laptop or a mobile phone and Zoom into a meeting of interest while they finish up their day’s work or prepare dinner. Some members of the public who have compromised immune systems are likely never going to sit in a crowded meeting room again.
The legislature should not only approve the extension of the exemption on public meetings allowing for remote meetings to occur, but they should find a way to make the change permanent, providing some help with funding the technology so that public access to public meetings is available even when walking through the door isn’t possible.