State News

Leaders discuss benefits, limitations of Zoom

As local officials enter budget discussions in preparation for Town Meeting, some wonder if online municipal meetings will ever end?

By Kevin O’Connor, VTDigger

Local officials in every town across Vermont are set to spend a long winter drafting budget proposals for March town meeting. The Brattleboro Select Board had planned to do so in person every Tuesday starting Nov. 2. Then Vermont’s coronavirus cases rose as other states’ counts fell.

“Here we are with Covid numbers higher than they’ve ever been, yet we’re thinking about having an in-person meeting?” Select Board Chair Elizabeth McLoughlin recently asked her colleagues. “I just don’t think it’s the right time for us to go back into an enclosed space for four or five hours.”

While many other Vermont cities and towns are back in public meeting rooms, Brattleboro — which unsuccessfully fought the state for the right to locally mandate masks — is one of many holding out.

When Gov. Phil Scott declared a pandemic state of emergency in March 2020, it spurred the Legislature to approve temporary measures allowing remote meetings that continued until Vermont hit a vaccination target this past June.

Although Scott has lifted his Covid order, municipalities can retain an online presence as long as they maintain “a physical meeting location for public participation” with at least one member of the governing body, staff member or designee present, the secretary of state’s office said in a resulting memorandum.

“We are hearing that many towns are meeting in a hybrid model — they have a Zoom or phone in option but many if not most officials are physically in the room,” said Karen Horn of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. “That may change at any moment of course, given where our case numbers go — and they are going up.”

In Brattleboro’s case, not all five members feel safe with the current Covid infection rates.

McLoughlin said: “I see the benefit of us being in person to be less than the risk of any potential infection.”

McLoughlin and fellow board member Jessica Gelter said they’d feel comfortable meeting in person when the local two-week Covid rate falls below the approximately 50 current cases per 10,000 residents.

“I’m concerned about those who have young or old people that they deal with who either are not vaccinated or are more vulnerable,” McLoughlin said. “I just don’t think that we want to put the community at risk.”

“If one of our board feels that meeting in person is an irresponsible or unsafe thing to do, I’m not going to complain,” Quipp said. “But I really don’t want to stay on Zoom forever. The intangible benefit of being in a room together is intangible, but it is a benefit.”

And preserving the option to attend meetings virtually for community members is a benefit to them, too, with greater attendance reported across the state. While some local officials have complained about such increased attendance, most agree it’s a benefit to public discourse and democracy as it allows the public access directly to the facts as they unfold (rather than social media’s diluted or misconstrued version of them).

As Secretary of State Jim Condos writes in his op-ed this week (page 10): “The talking heads in our news feeds don’t count: It is on all of us to verify the information we hear before promoting it ourselves. If you’re skeptical, or have questions, reach out to those who have answers… Disagreeing with each other through civil discourse, based on facts and evidence, is the minimum standard we must consider in order to return to a healthy democracy. Please join me: Be skeptical about what you read online and think before you link!”

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