O.B. reluctant to continue hybrid meetings

Seen here at a virtual select board meeting back in March, former chair of the Oak Bluffs select board Brian Packish, advocated for in-person sessions on Tuesday — Screenshot

In a discussion regarding whether to pursue a hybrid meeting strategy for future meetings, the Oak Bluffs select board mulled over the benefits and detriments of in-person versus Zoom attendance. 

This comes after the COVID-19 pandemic triggered an exemption to the Open Meeting Law, allowing public meetings to be held remotely via Zoom. 

Some towns have continued to operate select board meetings remotely, while others, like Oak Bluffs, bounced back into in-person attendance in the spring. Oak Bluffs select board convened in person following a nearly two-year hiatus for the first time on April 6, and has struggled with attempts to offer hybrid meetings. 

Select board member Brian Packish, who served as board chair at the peak of the pandemic, said the virtual meetings were known to draw dozens of attendees. “As chair during that time, it was absolutely hellacious for me,” he said. He said monitoring the chat and keeping track of all the participants was “challenging.” 

“I respect the people that take the time to look at the [meeting] agenda,” Packish said, and those who “take the time out of their life to come and sit down in this room.” 

Packish said allowing observers to hop on to a select board meeting via Zoom would be “a good thing,” but rejected the idea of “a component where you can interact and communicate” with the board. 

Packish said he’s heard from “a ton of single moms who don’t have people watching kids” tell him that they “throw [the select board meeting] on, make dinner, and listen to [the meeting] in the background.” He said he’s heard from a number of people who have relayed to him that their knowledge of town government has increased greatly by being able to attend meetings virtually. 

He argued for Zoom availability for observation purposes only. 

Town administrator Deborah Potter noted the technical difficulties the meeting room has regarding quality audio feed, and said that to embrace a new format of open-to-Zoom meetings, it would be better to relocate the board into a smaller room. The current room “does not function right” for hybrid meetings, she said. 

“There is a benefit to you having the ability to have certain people remote-in via Zoom to conduct business,” Potter said. “If you all of a sudden now have the four, five people you need to have on Zoom here, and 200 that are just monitoring it, that’s going to be a little bit more complex.” Potter questioned who would monitor and control the Zoom attendants to control muting and chats.

Potter said MVTV records every meeting, so those who want to observe the meeting can. “Yes, it’s two days later, but it’s not like people can’t turn on MVTV and see what’s happening here to be engaged in the community.” 

Oak Bluffs parks commission chair Tony Lima advocated for hybrid meetings, and said the parks department has operated mostly successfully with the model, but noted that it may be worth considering a way to better manage the chat portion. 

“Can we just do away with chatting?” asked select board vice chair Gail Barmakian. Potter said that would be possible. Barmakian, like Packish, said she respects those who “prioritize” the meeting by physically showing up to town hall.

Select board member Jason Balboni said the board could allow observer-only Zoom sessions, restricting participation completely. The chat option on Zoom, he said, is “awful.”

After discussing various options, the board ultimately chose to table the discussion for a later date.