Municipalities hold remote meetings under Open Meeting Law changes

  • Northampton City Hall File photo

Staff Writer
Published: 3/19/2020 12:10:06 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The Northampton City Council will hold a remote meeting tonight (Thursday, March 19), a move made necessary by the coronavirus pandemic and recent changes allowed under the state’s Open Meeting Law.

The meeting will take place over Zoom, a video and phone conferencing platform. Specific information about how to join the Zoom call can be found on the City Council meeting agenda.

Northampton Open Media will live stream the meeting and later upload it to YouTube, according to City Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra.

A totally remote meeting was not allowed under state law until recently. On March 10, Gov. Charlie Baker signed an order suspending certain parts of the Open Meeting Law. Now, members and anyone appearing at a meeting can participate remotely. Meetings don’t need to be held in a public place if the body can make alternative plans to allow public participation and observation.

At Thursday’s meeting, there will be a public comment period at the start of the call, or people can submit written comments beforehand. Written comments must be received by 5 p.m. on Thursday to be included for the meeting.

“We welcome people coming onto Zoom with us and commenting that way and being a part of this first try for us on this very new situation,” Sciarra said.

“It’s hard when things change and these are stressful times,” she said. “But I feel like we are all coming together to make this work ... it might not be seamless and I ask for people’s patience, but my hope is, actually, for the public, it’s not going to be very different.”

The meeting agenda includes several potential zoning changes, including one tied to the pending sale of the World War II Club that a number of people spoke for and against at a recent public hearing.

In Northampton “governmental and regulatory boards” that have to meet will continue to virtually, Mayor David Narkewicz’s declaration of a local state of emergency reads. In addition to City Council, Narkewicz said those groups include the School Committee and Board of Health.

“These are meetings of government bodies that need to continue to be able to meet and make important decisions and keep the regular operations of city government functioning,” he told the Gazette.

Other groups like the Arts Council and the Council on Aging will not be meeting, he said.

Natural disasters and snowstorms have closed buildings before, but this situation is different, Narkewicz said. “This is a very unique situation that I think is unprecedented,” he said.

Other municipalities are working out how they will hold public meetings. The Easthampton City Council met on Wednesday evening through a video conferencing software.

The meeting was streamed on TV through Easthampton Open Media, and will be uploaded to YouTube, City Council President Peg Conniff said.

The Easthampton council has not been able to set up a way for the public to call into meetings yet, so public hearings will be moved to a future meeting date. That meant there was no “public speak” period on Wednesday evening, according to Conniff. “It’s not a small thing, it’s a big deal,” she said of the change.

She added, “Until we can figure out a way via teleconferencing ... and we can call on them and they can speak one by one by one, we just felt it was easier that this time to suspend it.”

Conniff said there are some topics that have recently been discussed in City Council that people feel passionately about — such as a possible dog park and plastic bag ban— but those were not be on the agenda this week.

In Amherst, aside from Town Council, all public meetings are canceled until early April, Amherst assistant town manager David Ziomek said. After that, town officials are trying to figure out how to proceed, he said.

“Our biggest concern really is ... the regulatory boards,” he said, giving the example of the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Historical Commission. “Those boards and committees, we need to come up with an alternative format for as soon as possible. We want to keep projects moving through the pipeline. We want to be responsive and supportive of those residents, those businesses, those developers that need to get projects through those boards and committees.”

Town Council will meet remotely on Monday, and Ziomek said town officials are working out how the public can participate.

“I think everybody is looking at creative ways to make sure that we do include the public,” he said. “Even during these times, our open meting law is extremely important and our democracy is important.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com




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