State allows virtual meetings
The Town of New Shoreham is re-introducing a virtual option in accordance with the state’s response to the continued growth of Covid cases. On January 6, Governor Daniel McKee issued Executive Order 22-01, which permits meetings to be held virtually, and also requires public bodies to provide remote access to their meetings, even if they are able to convene in person.
The executive order will remain in place until February 4, unless renewed, modified, or terminated by subsequent executive order. As part of the state’s emergency response to Covid-19, the order modifies provisions of the Open Meetings Act by allowing meetings to be held virtually, by telephone, or audio or video conferencing.
According to the guidance issued by attorney General Peter Neronha, “adequate alternative means of public access” must be provided, which are further defined as “measures that provide transparency and permit timely and effective public access to the deliberations of a public body. Examples include telephone, internet, or satellite-enabled audio or video conferencing or any other technology that enables the
public to clearly follow the proceedings of the public body in real time.”
The attorney general’s guidelines go on to stipulate that the alternative means of public access must be free, and must be provided even if the members of the public body are able to convene in person. Additionally, any party that is required to appear before the public body must be able to do so remotely.
Per the guidelines, public bodies may hold completely virtual meetings or hybrid meetings, and must properly advertise the telephone number, URL address, or other means the public has of accessing the meeting remotely, using the regular methods of posting a notice 48 hours in advance of the meeting on the Secretary of State’s website, posting a notice at the principal office of the public body, and posting a notice at one other prominent location within the public body.
The Town of New Shoreham has been working on improving the audio and visual technology in the council chambers for some time, with the Town Council voting this month to award a bid of $35,133.73 to Signet to provide audio and visual conferencing solutions. According to Signet, the design will provide video conferencing capability, teleconference capability if desired, new camera, additional microphones in the room, an 86-inch television display behind the council dais, various control and signal processors, and a control panel at the staff desk.
Town Manager Maryanne Crawford informed the council on Jan 4 that Signet has performed audio and visual upgrades for several other town halls in the state, and were recommended by them. Town Clerk Millie McGinnes confirmed that she had spoken with representatives from Richmond, R.I., and they were “very pleased” with the work Signet had done there.
Council Member Keith Stover called it a “really important step,” and reminded everyone the “overarching goal” was to improve the experience for people following the meetings from home. The council was conscious of the difficulties people had with the virtual meetings during the early days of the pandemic, and the contract with Signet is a result of the effort to improve the virtual experience.
First Warden André Boudreau said he wanted to make sure the people at home can hear what is going on, with Council Member Martha Ball stating that everyone participating in the meetings would still have to “speak into the microphone.” A common criticism heard repeatedly at
meetings in town hall is that the people listening in from home cannot always hear what is being said, especially if someone speaks from the audience without using the provided microphone. Ball said everyone would have to have “human decency” and use the microphones.
David Lewis spoke from the audience, utilizing the microphone, but pointed out that it was hard to have a “free-flowing” conversation with people getting out of their seats to walk back and forth to the microphone. Second Warden Sven Risom suggested portable microphones as a solution, although with the governor’s new executive order, participants may likely be calling in from home for a while.