When a gun shop was proposed in Newton a year ago, more than 500 people flocked to a City Council hearing to have their say — some expressing outrage, others support.
“People felt very passionately about it,” said Laura Towvim, a local advocate opposed to the store, which ultimately was not allowed to open. “When you have the largest number of residents attending a meeting ever, it’s pretty clear that it’s something you need to handle and deal with.”
Yet the meeting wasn’t held in the City Council Chambers that night in May 2021. Because of pandemic restrictions, the public hearing was conducted remotely over Zoom.
Now that cities and towns across Massachusetts are holding many meetings in person again, there’s a growing movement — among proponents of open government, advocates for people with disabilities, and elected officials — to continue virtual access to local boards and commissions.
“It’s opening up the doors to more people,” said Susan Albright, Newton’s City Council president. “This gives a wider swath of the residents [a chance] to make their thoughts known.”
Newton has spent $200,000 on video equipment and other technology so boards such as the City Council and School Committee can offer hybrid meetings both in-person and online, according to Albright. Other communities are still weighing how to proceed as they await guidance from the state.
When the pandemic struck in early 2020, Governor Charlie Baker lifted the state’s Open Meeting Law requirements that municipal public boards and committees meet in person. Instead, boards could meet virtually, and the public could interact with them online.
But following Baker’s extension of those changes in February, they are due to expire again on July 15.
Dianna Hu, a Google software engineer who uses a powered wheelchair, said keeping the virtual measures in place is “just the right thing to do.”
Hu, a Cambridge resident who also serves as board chairwoman for the Boston Center for Independent Living, compared the availability of remote technology to curb cuts, elevators, and other upgrades intended to improve access to public spaces.
“This is probably one of the biggest components of democracy,” Hu said. “It’s opening up the doors.”
State Senator Jason Lewis of Winchester and state Representative Denise Garlick of Needham have filed legislation that would require cities and towns to continue offering free remote access to municipal public meetings. Elected officials serving on municipal boards would still have to conduct meetings in person. (The legislation would not apply to meetings of the state Legislature.)
“What we’ve learned during the pandemic is that when you make it easier and more convenient for the public to participate in local government meetings, then more people are definitely going to make sure their voices and perspectives are heard,” Lewis said in an interview.
But Geoffrey Beckwith, who leads the Massachusetts Municipal Association — a nonprofit that helps city and town officials work together on advocacy and developing policy — warned that requiring hybrid meetings would force communities to pay for costly new equipment and upgrades to meeting spaces.
He said Baker’s current order — which allows either remote or in-person meetings — should be extended through the end of 2023 to give communities more time to determine the expense of offering a hybrid format. “Mandating it now is extraordinarily premature because the vast majority of communities couldn’t implement it,” Beckwith said.
Lewis acknowledged the challenges of offering both remote and in-person meetings, and said the state should offer financial resources and expertise to communities that need help.
The proposed legislation would allow a city or town to seek a hardship waiver and post meeting transcripts or recordings online.
Deirdre Cummings, the legislative director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, said remote meetings have become part “of the fabric of our lives.”
“The investment that it’s going to take to do it will have just far greater results ... stronger schools, stronger cities and towns when they have more people participating,” Cummings said.
As state lawmakers consider the legislation, some communities are working on the issue themselves.
In Franklin, officials spent about $20,000 to upgrade the town municipal building’s council chambers to allow remote access and participation during meetings, according to Town Administrator Jamie Hellen.
New cameras and other equipment were added, and meetings of several local boards are broadcast on local cable TV and over Zoom. Leaders from other towns have visited Franklin to examine the meeting room’s setup, he said.
“This is a real opportunity to do outreach to a lot of other people who may not have been tuning into a lot of meetings in the past,” Hellen said. “If we want to engage them in the future of the community ... they have to feel like they are engaged and [can] participate in those meetings.”
In Somerville, resident Leah Bloom said the city’s remote meetings allowed her to attend nearly every session of the School Committee during the 2020-2021 school year.
Bloom is a member of Somerville Parents for an Equitable and Safe Opening, a group of residents who advocated for bringing local students back to in-person classes safely. She has a school-age child and works full time running her own business. With those responsibilities, she said, there was no way for her to attend all of those meetings in person.
“Remote access is necessary,” Bloom said. “To take it away would be to take a huge step backward in terms of equity, representation, [and] making a government responsible to the people who elected them.”
Jesse Clingan, city councilor for Ward 4 in Somerville, said “I think at this point the expectation from the public is that we can’t go back to the world of pre-COVID in-person-only meetings. The City Council has put multiple orders expressing our wish for the administration to put whatever resources necessary to make fully hybrid meetings a reality. I have to imagine the [Mayor Katjana} Ballantyne administration has a plan in the works. I’m very eager to hear their plan as the clock is counting down until the governor’s order expires.”
In Newton, the City Council meets in the council chamber at City Hall while City Clerk Carol Moore manages the remote participation of residents using a laptop computer. People can speak during public hearings over Zoom.
NewTV, the city’s cable access channel, operates the cameras and broadcasts the meetings on local television through its website and over Vimeo, another web-based video service.
Newton installed the necessary audio and video equipment in the council chamber and three meeting rooms at City Hall, as well as in the School Committee’s meeting room at the Education Center, Albright said. The money came from franchise fees collected from cable providers such as Verizon and Comcast, she said.
During a recent meeting, Councilor-at-large Becky Walker Grossman participated from home as she and her family cared for their newborn baby daughter.
The flexibility offered by remote meetings helps people participate, she said in an e-mail.
“We’re all better served when people from all walks of life, including parents of young children, have the tools they need to engage in city governance,” Grossman said.
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.