Town Council Votes To Retain Zoom Format For Meetings Until January 2, 2022

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Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, September 27,2021

This is one of two articles on the September 27 Town Council meeting. The meeting took place over Zoom and was recorded. The recording can be viewed here

Present
Councilors: Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Alisa Brewer, Mandi Jo Hanneke, Andy Steinberg (At large), Cathy Schoen (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Dorothy Pam and George Ryan (District 3), Evan Ross and Steve Schreiber (District 4), Shalini Bahl-Milne and Darcy DuMont (District 5). Absent: Sarah Swartz (District 1). Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager), Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)

Councilors Vote To Continue Meeting Remotely
On June 21, after one hybrid meeting with nine councilors masked and attending in person and four councilors attending on Zoom, the council voted to go back to the remote format on Zoom until September 1. At the August 23 meeting, the issue of meeting format was again debated at length, and it was decided that the meetings should remain on Zoom until October 1. Another extensive debate took place at the September 27 meeting, ending in a 8-3-1 vote to continue meeting remotely until the new council is seated on January 2, 2022. Voting no were Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5), Evan Ross (District 4), and Mandi Jo Hanneke (At large). Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2) abstained.

Almost all councilors weighed in on the matter. Cathy Schoen (District 1) said she likes the hybrid format, where those councilors and members of the public who are comfortable meeting in person are present in Town Hall, but finds the required masks make it hard for others to hear what is being said and don’t allow others to see facial expression. 

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said that masks will be required indoors for the foreseeable future, so if people meet in Town Hall everyone present will need to wear masks.

Hanneke said that the council needs to meet in person, but hybrid meetings do not does not force anyone to be present in person, since remote participation is still an option. She added that those people who are pushing to remain fully remote are being “disrespectful” to those who want to meet in person. 

Pat DeAngelis (District 2) said the feedback she has received from residents is that they prefer the Zoom format. She proposed that the council meet remotely until the end of the year. Steve Schreiber (District 4) said that meeting remotely is a matter of safety. He wondered if councilors who want to meet in person could simply participate on Zoom from the same room.

Dorothy Pam (District 3) also said that she has also received positive feedback from residents about the Zoom format.

Bahl-Milne said she doesn’t like masks because they make it difficult for her to understand what is being said, but if some councilors want to meet in person, so be it. She will be traveling, she said, so she will be participating remotely anyway. She likes the flexibility of the hybrid option, giving councilors a choice of participation options.

Hanneke added that the purpose of council meetings is to get business done, and then asked how many times meetings were interrupted because of connectivity problems. Using the hybrid option means that those who don’t want to come to Town Hall don’t have to, although it does not eliminate delays due to technical issues.

Darcy DuMont (District 5) pointed out that many of the councilors are elderly, and it is risky for them to sit in a room for a four- to six-hour meeting with members of the public who might not be vaccinated, even if masked. Schreiber agreed and said that he thinks a hybrid format is the worst option, since it creates unequal groups of both councilors and residents, one on Zoom and one in person. He noted that the UMass Department of Architecture tried to have in-person faculty meetings, then tried meeting in hybrid format, and finally went fully remote because people were getting sick and had young children who were not vaccinated at home.

Ross countered that it is great that Zoom is working for some of us, but he is struggling. He said that he is enjoying teaching at UMass in person and that  masks are protective. The outbreak of COVID at UMass is not because students are getting sick from their classes. He said he “can’t do this Zoom anymore.”

Schreiber said he has had a very different experience than Ross at UMass, maybe because architecture students work together in studios for long periods of time. He said the professors and students did not get COVID from large unmasked parties, but rather from their classes. He said whole classes have been quarantined because of exposure.

Hanneke was irate. She said, “We’re supposed to be leaders. Our elementary school students who are not vaccinated have been meeting in person for six hours a day and not getting sick. The CDC has said that meeting in person is safe. We are not following the science… We are making a huge mistake.”

George Ryan (District 3) said he also is tired of Zoom but a hybrid format would impact technical support staff, who.would not have a choice of participating remotely. For that reason, he felt meetings should stay remote until the end of the term.

Alisa Brewer (At large) said that the Community Resources Committee (CRC), chaired by Hanneke, chose to have a fully in-person meeting, with no hybrid option, in June,  and she was “appalled” at that decision. She felt a hybrid option was going backwards. Those present in person require that staff manage where people sit and who talks during public comment. She doesn’t feel good about adding all that extra work onto staff.

Andy Steinberg (At large) moved that council meetings remain remote until November 15, but because that would necessitate another debate, such as have occurred at three previous meetings, he revised the motion to extend to January 2, 2022.

Hanneke was irate. She said, “We’re supposed to be leaders. Our elementary school students who are not vaccinated have been meeting in person for six hours a day and not getting sick. The CDC has said that meeting in person is safe. We are not following the science… We are making a huge mistake.” Hanneke, Bahl-Milne, and Ross voted against the motion. Griesemer abstained, saying she would abide by the wishes of the majority.

Council Committees Will Each Decide The Format For Meetings
Griesemer said she and Clerk of the Council Athena O’Keeffe and Finance Director Sean Mangano have developed a way that council committees can meet in a hybrid fashion. This would involve a committee member other than the chair being trained to run the Zoom meeting. The note taker would not need to be in the Town Room, but if connectivity was lost and there was still a quorum present in the room, one of the councilors would have to take notes.

Hanneke felt committees should have the option to meet fully in person. She said that some committees, such as the Governance, Organization, and Legislation Committee, “never have public participation.” She objected to having to go through a complicated hybrid set-up if the entire committee agrees to meet in person.

Brewer said committees should not have in-person-only meetings, arguing that it potentially denies public access to government process. She offered an amended motion: that committees could meet in hybrid or remote format but that in-person-only would not be an option. She said she was “utterly offended” that the CRC did have one such meeting in June. Schreiber pointed out that prior to the pandemic, recordings made in the Town Room were not readily available to the public but needed to be processed and edited, and the lag between meetings and posting was considerable if recordings were posted at all. With Zoom meetings, he said, the recordings are readily available and it is easy to grant access to the public.  He agreed that in-person-only meetings should not be an option. The  council voted 11-1 (Hanneke voted no) that committees will choose between hybrid and remote formats.

The council then voted 12-0 that each committee can choose the format for its meetings among those two choices.

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