Massachusetts lawmakers appear ready to allow cities and towns to hold remote meetings for another two years. The current rules expire at the end of the month if lawmakers don’t reach a deal, which would force some boards and committees on the Island to return to in-person meetings for the first time in three years.
That would be unfortunate.
While there are solid — and passionate — opinions on both sides of this argument, providing the public with access to live, streaming meetings with the ability to comment enhances transparency of local and state government. That’s not only priceless, it’s the modern way to run a democracy.
It was just about three years ago to the day that our world as we knew it was upended. Work for many of us stopped, we isolated ourselves to keep the COVID-19 virus from spreading, and town halls shut down.
But because governments needed to function, state lawmakers and then Gov. Charlie Baker agreed to allow public boards, committees, and commissions the ability to meet over videoconference.
And it worked.
There were plenty of blunders. “You’re muted” is a phrase we all wish we could forget, and there are the cringeworthy moments across the Island when some people forgot they had been unmuted and blurted out things they — and everyone else — wish they hadn’t.
But governments were able to function, with the public’s involvement, during an unprecedented time.
Now, with the threat of overloading our hospitals because of a wave of COVID-19 infections mostly faded, ending remote meetings not only seems shortsighted, it’s almost hard to imagine some governments functioning without them.
We advocate for towns to hold hybrid meetings. That’s with town officials meeting in person, while providing the public an opportunity to weigh in remotely.
For one, news media coverage of local government has increased greatly with access to remote meetings. Local news reporters can cover multiple hearings held at the same time, because there’s a living, easily accessible document. And more regional news outlets can cover Island meetings from off-Island.
More important, residents have had an easier time, especially those living on an Island, accessing public meetings.
Both of the Steamship Authority boards provide the option to meet remotely, so Vineyarders haven’t needed to travel to Nantucket or the mainland for regular meetings; state hearings for topics that impact Islanders, like the Bourne and Sagamore bridge replacements, or new Title 5 regulations, didn’t require a trip off-Island. All topics worthy of public input.
And the benefits for folks who might have difficulty getting out of their homes are obvious, but can’t be understated.
But at the same time, we like the idea of town officials meeting in person. While it’s hard to quantify, there is something to be said for government business done face to face. “You can cut to the chase in a much more direct way instead of hiding behind a monitor,” as one public official recently told us.
We think the Oak Bluffs select board is a good model for any town in Massachusetts. The select board has been meeting in person, but they do have remote access available for the public. The meeting room has two video monitors that allow the public to make comments remotely.
It was bumbly at first, but it’s gotten much better with time.
Currently, every town on the Island seems to do things differently. The Edgartown select board has been fully remote since the pandemic. So has the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. The Aquinnah select board has been meeting only in person recently, without the option for residents to participate remotely. Town officials there say they like to meet face to face, and they say they are working on making their meetings more public.
And Tisbury — after our print deadline on Wednesday — was scheduled to meet for the first time in a hybrid fashion at the Emergency Services Building, where the technology has already been installed. They plan to meet in a hybrid fashion, potentially, next week at the Katherine Cornell Theater, with technology upgrades.
Now, the Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA) worries that state lawmakers will mandate every town board and committee to have a remote option. Even your local cemetery commission. For the time being, that’s taking it too far. There is a cost associated with hosting hybrid meetings, but the MMA points out that there’s been no statewide study to understand how much the upfront and ongoing costs would be. There are video screens, video cameras, speakers, and computers, not to mention an IT department, to consider. For some small towns, that’s not a minor cost. And what happens when two boards meet at the same time? You’ll need two rooms retrofitted to broadcast meetings.
If state lawmakers go down that road, that’s another unfunded mandate.
Now it appears likely that the legislature will give towns another two years of the remote option. We suggest that lawmakers discuss and finalize a good, permanent state law during that time, with a funding mechanism that will help the smaller, remote towns like Aquinnah.