Opinion:  Who Is Present on Zoom at Amherst Municipal Meetings?  The Public Has a Right to Know.


Screenshot from the League of Women Voters forum "Working Toward Racial Equity" on March 23, 2021. 185 people participated and the identities of all participants were visible. Photo: Zoom

It is time to “open up” the meetings of Amherst’s public committees.  Governor Healey has  further extended to March 2025 the temporary provisions pertaining to the Open Meeting Law to allow live “adequate, alternative means” of public access to the deliberations of public bodies.  Our Amherst public bodies have been operating with a very limited interpretation of what “adequate, alternative” public access means.  The law requires that members of the public body must be clearly audible to each other and to members of the public which means these bodies meetings can be conducted on phone lines, You Tube or any other technology that enables the public to clearly follow the audible proceedings of a committee. 

So, what is the problem if clear instructions for accessing the meeting remotely and a 48 hour advanced notice is given?  (Remote access is not required if the meeting is held in a physical location that is open and accessible to the public.) The problem is that the Amherst meetings are conducted on Zoom but members of the public who are accessing the meeting remotely cannot be seen or see each other, even when they are making a public comment.  Their names don’t appear on the participant list.  Members of the public have no way of knowing who is at the meeting, except for the few who provide public comment.  This inhibits the community conversations and organizing between meetings that allow a representative government to operate well.  The committee members, as well as the public, can’t see what constituencies are represented at the meetings, which could be ascertained from seeing the people on the screen like the ages for example.  If the chair of the meeting doesn’t comment on how large the attendance is, there is no way for the public to know whether only a few are interested in what’s on the agenda, or it there’s a big turnout.  One can think of other important information that is missing with these limitations of no names and no faces.

My personal frustration as a local advocate on several issues pertaining to life in Amherst has led me to investigate what “adequate” has meant during the last four years in two other communities of a similar size and form of government.  I interviewed a member of the Northampton City Council and a member of the Greenfield School Board.  Those two communities’ ideas of accessibility include every community member who attends a public meeting online being on the screen and their names being listed on the participants lists.  Despite a zoom bombing incident recently in Northampton, the meetings there have remained “open”. Everyone at the meeting can see everyone else at the meeting.  They have provided some protection by only allowing a person to have their name on their screen when their camera if off.  This prevents participants from displaying offensive words or pictures.  One community has added a password to some meetings that a person must put in besides clicking on a zoom link.

My mind goes to some of the controversial issues that have come before town committees over the past four years.  I am wondering if community folks could have seen who else cared about how committee members were voting, what kind of more powerful advocacy could have been done to really reflect what our community thinks and wants.  This blatant lack of transparency assigns a second-class citizen status to those online, unnecessarily.  Being able to see who else is at a meeting that you are attending on Zoom is a basic courtesy, a minimum requirement for transparency, and a vital part of building community among town residents. 

Please Mr. Bockelman, open our meetings!

Lydia Vernon-Jones is a resident of Amherst.

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5 thoughts on “Opinion:  Who Is Present on Zoom at Amherst Municipal Meetings?  The Public Has a Right to Know.

  1. Residents have been complaining about this since the inception of the Council – even before COVID. The Town Council is in charge the remote format and can decide to allow the public participating remotely in a meeting to see who’s there, and to be seen, as they are in other towns. Showing faces and names gives the public more of a voice and more meaningful participation. Thanks for your persistence, Lydia!

  2. You’re so right, Lydia. Now that we have Zoom and systems like it that are available at little cost, we can offer complete access to government meetings to people who otherwise could not attend. People with small children who would need babysitters. People who cannot spend all the time required to attend a meeting in person, when they only want be present and to comment on a single matter. People who have no access to transportation or who would rather not travel to and from a meeting at night. The list goes on. The point is, Amherst now has the technical capacity to make meetings accessible to more of its citizens and allow their full participation, just as if they were attending in person. C’mon Amherst: Just do it!

  3. Watching the 11 pm news last night and the WesternMassNews coverage of Northampton’s City Council meeting at which three resolutions related to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza were discussed, I was struck by how, the public attendees at this online (Zoom) meeting were able to be seen, on screen and to see who else was present. There are clips from the meeting here: https://www.westernmassnews.com/2024/02/28/meeting-held-northampton-discuss-israel-ceasefire/
    Northampton has had an open and inclusive approach to public participation at City Council meetings online since early in the Covid pandemic and continues it now, even on emotionally charged, controversial topics, such as at last night’s meeting. In contrast, when I attend Amherst Council and Town Committee/Board meetings, and sometimes even Town “public forums,” online, I am frustrated by my inability to know who else from the public is there (unless they speak) and how other people are in attendance. I know others are frustrated too. I understand if Amherst Town leadership have concerned about security and “Zoom bombing”, but many other communities have managed these concerns successfully with more openness and access. I have no doubt that Amherst could as well, if Town leadership were willing. I hope the Council and Town Manager will revisit the Town’s current practices on this.

  4. Thanks, Tracy, for providing a clip from the Northampton City Council meeting demonstrating that attendees attending remotely were named and visible whether they were just attending or were speaking .

  5. In the comfort of my home, and with the mobility of a tablet, I watched the entire Town Council meeting of last Monday night. I knew that it was a well-attended meeting, but it wasn’t until I saw the photos posted today on the Indy that I could physically see just how well attended it was. When watching through Amherst Media’s recording, what filled my screen were the faces of the Town Council. The only view of the auditorium was limited to one small square, which showed only a portion of those in attendance, and which was additionally hard to see on a tablet. When people spoke before the council in person or on Zoom, they were not visible; only their voices were heard. While we could see the faces of the entire council, for most of the meeting we watched them watch and listen. Only the President spoke.

    Looked at metaphorically, this produces the effect that all the space and all the air in the room is taken up by the Town Council. Other participants in the meeting are reduced to disembodied voices. The Council is quite literally front and center, and controls the process of discourse and visibility. This is in stark contrast to how it was in Town Meeting, where the camera focused on the individual speaking, no matter where in the room they were.

    Council proponents promised the inclusion of more voices, not fewer. It is up to residents to decide how well they have delivered on this promise.

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