For Joyce George of Shelburne, COVID-19 invigorated her interest in municipal government.
She’d attended a few meetings in the past, pre-pandemic, but with Zoom becoming the oxygen of participatory municipal government, George has been going to all sorts of meetings, virtual ones that is.
George hopes Shelburne will keep Zooming when meetings return to in-person affairs. “The meetings are just so interesting. It’s absolutely fascinating,” she said.
Because of Zoom, George said she is “learning so much about Shelburne and its regulations.”
Karen Horn, director of public policy and advocacy with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, said most towns are looking at ways to maintain this brave new world of increased public participation while returning to traditional-style meetings — a hybrid including the best of both.
With COVID restrictions lifted by July 4, if not before, many Vermont towns, including Shelburne, Charlotte and Hinesburg, have started talking about what town board meetings will look like going forward.
Horn said the hybrid model may mean that the public will still be able to participate remotely, but at least one town official will have to be physically present at town hall.
“The underlying state statue says you have to have at least one person at the physical location of the meeting, so if a member of the public wants to go and participate in person they can,” she said.
But Horn said the future of town meetings is “very much a work in progress.”
A lot of towns have experienced an increase in participation at meetings of selectboards, planning commissions and other town bodies “and they don’t want to lose that,” she said.
Although the town body that is convening has to have one person physically at the meeting, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a member of the town board, commission or committee.
“It could be the town manager, a board member, a secretary or a member of the town government,” Horn said.
Towns can also pass an ordinance requiring all board members to attend in person, she said.
A positive result of the pandemic, she said, is that towns have discovered a way to increase public participation, and allow people, like Joyce George, who doesn’t like to drive at night, more opportunities to participate.
“The one caveat is people need to have sufficient broadband,” Horn said.
Shelburne reports increased participation, but town manager Lee Krohn said the selectboard has not discussed when or how it will return to in-person meetings. He suspects it will be a topic at the board’s meeting on June 22.
He said there are a lot of issues to be decided and hopes the selectboard will proceed cautiously.
Krohn said it is interesting to remember how quickly procedures for holding town meetings developed.
“In almost every case, public meetings came to a halt for awhile until we figured out what we were dealing with and what the options were,” Krohn said.
In Shelburne, once the town discovered Zoom, it quickly found it needed to get a second account because there are so many committees, some meeting at the same time, and meetings cannot be held simultaneously on Zoom.
“Just the concept that we were able to maintain public meetings at all is a pretty remarkable change,” he said.
While Zoom is not ideal, he’d also rather not open the floodgates to in-person public meetings all at once.
Krohn suspects the future of town meetings will be some sort of hybrid, but he’s not sure what that will look like.
A hybrid look?
When local selectboard meetings do return to livestreaming through Media Factory, the nonprofit public access media organization that films local government meetings, what will they look like?
Ken French, Media Factory’s municipal services manager, said that while they’ll once again send someone to film selectboard meetings, towns will need to be self-sufficient to create a decent Zoom experience.
French predicted that as the Media Factory films the livestream at a meeting, the feed will have to switch to a Zoom feed when someone responds remotely, but the Media Factory feed of the meeting won’t be seen on Zoom — at least not initially.
For the public access channel broadcast there will still be a multi-camera feed with the videographer switching among various cameras depending on who’s talking. Essentially, a Zoom feed would become just another feed, he said.
Towns will be responsible for running the Zoom portion of the meeting as they have been during the quarantine.
“Stage two is to start to look at integrating our equipment into the Zoom calls, and probably the first way that we would do that would be to provide an audio feed, because that’s the least complicated integration,” French said.
French will get to start practicing the hybrid future in Charlotte on Monday, June 14.
Monday’s meeting will be held in town hall, but only selectboard members will be allowed to participate in person. The public will be on Zoom.
It’s a first step toward discovering what the future holds, town administrator Dean Bloch said.
Bloch pointed out this Media Factory livestream only pertains to selectboard meetings. Other town boards will be Zoom-only, even when those meetings return to open public affairs because those meetings aren’t filmed by Media Factory.
Media Factory has no plans to expand its services to secondary boards and commissions like zoning or planning.
Hinesburg town manager Todd Odit said he thinks it will be July before the town makes a decision about its next step and the future of in-person, possibly hybrid town meetings.
Odit thinks for the near term, and possibly forever, town meetings will be held upstairs in town hall rather than in the conference room downstairs.
The conference room is great for videotaping but impossible to practice social distancing, Odit said.
He’s not sure when the selectboard will decide to allow members of the public into meetings, and he said it’s too early to tell if Zoom will be a permanent fixture in Hinesburg town meetings.
In Charlotte, one of the more heartwarming moments of the Zoom era happens at almost every selectboard meeting. At some point in the middle of most meetings, chair Matt Krasnow gets up from his computer and disappears from the feed.
Vice chair Frank Tenney smoothly takes over for 10-15 minutes while Krasnow is gone. The meeting proceeds seamlessly, undisturbed by the chair’s absence.
So where’s Krasnow? He leaves to help put his children to bed. With his wife, Julia Wayne, 22 weeks pregnant, Krasnow’s absences have become more frequent.
But usually no more than once a meeting nor longer than 15 minutes.