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In midst of pandemic, public meetings continue online

Kenneth Tavares, chairman of the Plymouth Select Board, participated in an online public meeting during the coronavirus outbreak.
Kenneth Tavares, chairman of the Plymouth Select Board, participated in an online public meeting during the coronavirus outbreak.

City and town halls across the state are largely silent this spring as efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus have forced public meetings online — leaving elected officials working to keep local government moving in the midst of a pandemic.

Until a few weeks ago, Kenneth Tavares — chairman of Plymouth’s Select Board and a 50-year veteran of town politics — never would have imagined holding video conference calls to conduct public business. Now, he feels differently.

"I think I'm a fan of it," Tavares said. "Thirty days ago, I don't think I would have said that to you."

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Because of the health crisis, Governor Charlie Baker last month suspended parts of the state’s Open Meeting Law, which governs how municipal meetings are conducted.

That order allows board members to participate in meetings remotely, using tools such as video conferencing software, as long as the public can follow the proceedings as they occur.

Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can join in, and software like Zoom allows viewers to virtually raise their hand to make a comment.

Coupled with municipal websites and social media to share information, officials said they have the tools to manage the day-to-day business of local government and ensure the public has access to those deliberations.

In the case of Plymouth, not only do town boards and committees meet in cyberspace, officials hold regular meetings with residents to update them on the town’s response to the disease, Tavares said.

The feedback for the online meetings is “extremely positive,” he said. “There is an audience for it.”

That has led to some rethinking about how local boards — which follow strict rules and seemingly arcane traditions rooted in Massachusetts’ horse and buggy days — could do their jobs, even if they aren’t in the same room.

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In Newton, City Council president Susan Albright said she is planning to continue implementing video conferencing of public hearings so more people can join.

“I think people might have been a bit shy, but I think people will get used to this,” Albright said.

Some, like Somerville City Council president Matt McLaughlin, are skeptical. While attendance at some meetings has improved with remote access, and the technology works well, not everyone has access to a computer and broadband Internet for video.

In the past, McLaughlin said he’s fielded proposals that pitched technology as a way to make it easier for residents to engage with local government.

“I always say to them, ‘You are only going to empower the same people who already participate,’” McLaughlin said. “The technology doesn’t necessarily open it up.”

And even as the technology is rolled out, the process doesn’t necessarily go off without a hitch.

In Wellesley, residents who tried listening to a recent Zoning Board of Appeals hearing on a housing proposal struggled to participate.

In a video recording of the session available on the Wellesley Public Media website, two callers who joined the video conference call couldn’t always hear what was said, and at least one board member’s connection dropped in and out of the online session.

The hearing was on a proposed five-story apartment complex on Route 9 that would be built under Chapter 40B, the state’s affordable housing law. There has been no final vote on the project.

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Robert Soderholm, a Wellesley resident concerned about the size of the proposed development and its traffic impact, said the town should hold off on remote meetings until the problems have been ironed out.

“Unless something is on fire, and of the highest public interest, don’t move forward with public hearings,” Soderholm said.

Robert W. Levy, the board’s vice chairman, said the panel faced little choice because it faced a deadline involving the proposed housing development.

“I agree, it could have been better,” said Levy, who led the hearing in late March. “We did the best we could; we are all volunteers.”

Shortly after the hearing, state lawmakers passed legislation that extended deadlines for boards because of the health crisis. Had that legislation been approved before the hearing on the project, Levy said he would have postponed it.

“Given that we were required to close the public hearing that night, and failure to do so would have led to constructive approval of the permit [to build the development], we had no choice,” he said. “We were between a rock and a hard place."

Levy, who has served on the town’s zoning board for 20 years, said in-person sessions are better: It’s easier for people to speak to one another, for example. But video conferencing could be useful for smaller meetings that deal with non-controversial topics.

McLaughlin, the Somerville City Council president, said he also prefers in-person meetings to deliberate city business, though not every resident could attend hearings on matters that affected their lives.

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McLaughlin said elected officials in Somerville have been concerned that there are residents who aren’t participating in their city’s government. In the past, officials would go door-to-door and speak directly with constituents.

Now with social distancing, he said, officials have scaled back and taken to posting fliers with information in local neighborhoods so people can be informed. That remains important, even if some members of the public now have the option of plugging into a meeting remotely.

“Regardless of whether it’s remote or in person, we still have this problem of not being able to reach out to all communities,” McLaughlin said. “We’re talking about it, we try to address it to the best of our ability. It is a systemic issue. We won’t solve it with technology.”

Boston University journalist Sydney Hager contributed to this report.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.