Pandemic forced local government online — and it could be for good, officials say

  • Clockwise from top left: Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman, South Hadley Town Administrator Mike Sullivan, Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz and Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle.

  • PAUL BOCKELMAN

  • NICOLE LACHAPELLE

  • MIKE SULLIVAN

  • DAVID NARKEWICZ

Staff Writer
Published: 7/11/2020 12:07:14 PM

When much of everyday life came to a grinding halt in March as the coronavirus locked down the country, the wheels of local municipal government continued to turn.

And even as Massachusetts slowly begins to reopen, the threat of COVID-19 is still real; daily case counts of the disease in the United States have broken records this month. As they continue to work through it all, some local leaders are assessing the ways in which the pandemic may have forced them to permanently change how they operate — with many saying the public health crisis accelerated government’s shift to providing a greater online presence to citizens.

“While the pandemic is really challenging, I think there will be positive outcomes,” said Paul Bockelman, Amherst’s town manager. “It emphasizes the need for quicker migration into a fully digital environment for local government.”

Like many cities and towns across the state and country, Amherst officials began providing services to its residents remotely after town buildings closed in March. And while Bockelman said the town will always have a “personal interface” in the form of physical government buildings (which are still closed), he said more focus has been put on bolstering the town’s digital presence as a result of COVID-19. Public meetings have been easier to access via Zoom, leading to more citizen attendance, Bockelman said, and every meeting is now archived online.

“It really opens up government,” he said.

Before the pandemic began, residents in Easthampton looking to do some basic transactions, such as pay their water and sewer bills, usually came into city buildings in person or used snail mail. But in the past few months, Mayor Nicole LaChapelle said such services “have gone very rapidly online.”

“We have, as much as possible, reduced person-to-person contact while maintaining core municipal services,” LaChapelle said. “It’s not one particular model — we’ve had to change it up maybe four or five times. We’re learning as we go.”

There were some city services that could be accessed online before the pandemic, but Easthampton added others in the early days of the public health crisis, LaChapelle said. Her goal is to make all municipal services available online, she said, noting that she plans to use some money the city receives in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to upgrade online services and digital communications.

The mayor said she and her staff were “stunned” when most of the city’s municipal functioning transitioned online with relative success, as people worked from home and applications such as Zoom and DocuSign created new work habits. She said she has been encouraging employees to work remotely when possible, and she agreed with Bockelman that online public meetings have increased citizen participation. Tthe online format, she said, is “not going to go away.”

“It’s opened everybody’s eyes,” LaChapelle said. “There’s a lot of work that can be done at home.”

In South Hadley, Town Administrator Mike Sullivan said that the town previously had invested in online infrastructure so that all of its services — except for issuing marriage licenses — could be accessed remotely during the pandemic. He also noted new protocols for employees working in person, including quarantining mail for 24 hours.

Although Sullivan isn’t sure what protocols the town will keep going forward, the current public health crisis “will permanently affect us,” he said.

There is one major snag that South Hadley is still facing, Sullivan noted: the “digital divide” between those who have reliable internet access and those who don’t, as public places with internet such as the library are now closed. He said the town is now looking at ways to help connect those struggling with internet issues.

“We discovered that the internet is the telephone of 1915,” Sullivan said. “Everybody has to have one.”

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz said city officials had been working to find a way to move toward electronic contracting for projects in the city and that the pandemic forced officials to use resources such as DocuSign. He also echoed what many other leaders said about providing some city services electronically.

“We hope that we’ll be able to return to having offices open so people can go in and make payments and things,” Narkewicz said. “But we also expect that when people realize the convenience of getting a bill online … that those services will be more used in the future going forward.”

The mayor also said he’s interested in evaluating work-from-home policies for employees, saying that, going forward, it’s “maybe something we’d consider” keeping in place. He said his staff have adapted to this new reality and that the city has continued to provide its services to citizens.

“We’re still assessing and adapting, in many ways, to the COVID-19 crisis,” Narkewicz said.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.

Please support the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s COVID-19 coverage

Thank you for your support of the Gazette.




Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

Copyright © 2019 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy