Participate from home: New civics questions arise in a pandemic-altered world

Jul. 17—In the same way many businesses are struggling to figure out how the work-from-home model fits into a pandemic-altered world, local governments have begun to address the value of the participate-from-home concept.

Public meetings at the local level are where ideas are shared, policies drafted and votes taken with the potential to affect every facet of life in southeastern Connecticut. In any city, town or borough, various boards and commissions govern areas including operations, education, finance and zoning, just to name a few.

Before the pandemic, meetings were held in person. Some of them included live video feeds on public access cable channels or online. Once COVID-19 hit, meetings were forced by the governor's decree to be held using teleconferencing or video conferencing technology, such as the popular Zoom application, so residents could not only watch but participate remotely.

But while the state legislature in its June special session authorized municipalities to continue offering virtual attendance through June 30, 2022, most southeastern Connecticut communities are easing back into a more up-close and personal approach. While using Zoom can make it easier for people to participate, municipal leaders point to technological challenges as well as question whether remote participation is good public policy.

In New London, Mayor Michael Passero is encouraging the city's governing bodies to conduct in-person meetings going forward. City of Groton Mayor Keith Hedrick said he favors the in-person model but can accommodate requests for remote participation. North Stonington First Selectmen Mike Urgo has rolled out a new hybrid meeting system to enhance public participation. In East Lyme, First Selectman Mark Nickerson has taken an in-person approach while exploring a hybrid model that could potentially allow for remote attendance, as well.

The East Lyme Board of Selectmen recently approved a $14,428 virtual meeting setup, to be covered by COVID relief funds, in Town Hall that will enable a Zoom component at meetings. The system includes a new computer, audio components, design engineering and installation. The request still needs approval from the Board of Finance and from voters at a town meeting.

Nickerson said he hopes the technology will integrate seamlessly and professionally into the meeting without the kind of technical difficulties that can plague more informal setups.

The town's IT technology supervisor, Carmen Ames, said in an email that the purpose is to allow board members to host a meeting in person while giving the public the option to join in remotely to promote social distancing. She told The Day the technology also could allow board members to participate remotely if necessary.

Could be handy when it snows

East Lyme resident Joseph Mingo is a 40-year member of the town's Water and Sewer Commission. At almost 80 years old with a chronic condition affecting the muscles in his legs, he has been in a wheelchair for two years. He said he will only be able to continue on the commission as long as there is a way for him to do it remotely.

For Mingo, hybrid meetings are as much an issue of public access as they are an issue of public accommodation. Public access refers to the right granted through the state Freedom of Information Act for residents to attend municipal and state agency meetings. Public accommodation, as spelled out in the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, ensures that those with physical or mental impairments can get in.

"It was great when we were on Zoom," Mingo said. "The problem is, the Town Hall is not designed for somebody in a wheelchair."

According to Freedom of Information Commission spokesman Tom Hennick, board and commission members already were entitled to participate remotely in public meetings prior to the pandemic.

Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities attorney Michelle Dumas Keuler said remote participation falls under the "reasonable accommodation" provisions of the ADA. Reasonableness is based on whether it's an undue administrative or financial hardship for them to continue to let him appear in that manner, she said.

Keuler said if Mingo's request to participate via videoconference is denied, he could file a claim with the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities because the state agency has jurisdiction over such cases.

Mingo cited steep wheelchair ramps in the front of Town Hall and the lack of an elevator as two significant factors that make it difficult for him to get into the building. He is also unable to drive himself to the meetings.

Nickerson said Town Hall is in compliance with ADA requirements. When asked by The Day if the proposed virtual meeting setup in Town Hall might be available to Mingo so he can continue his service on the commission, Nickerson said, "perhaps."

"I think there's a little more value if a commissioner is in the room," he said. "But when there is a situation where someone might be traveling or there might be an illness or something, extenuating circumstances, I would say that this would be available."

Nickerson similarly was noncommittal about if or when the system would be used for the public to attend meetings.

"With the hybrid situation, it is possible that people could participate," he said. "It's a tool in the toolbox. We'll use it to our advantage and to the public's advantage, so we can keep government and meetings open and the public participating."

Nickerson said more definitively that he envisions the system being used in the case of another COVID-19 outbreak or a weather-related situation, like a snowstorm, that keeps people at home.

He said he personally had some reservations about people not participating in meetings in person.

"I'm not sure it's that more efficient," he said. "I don't think people working from home is more efficient than people in the office. I think it's been proven. So maybe it's the same thing with government."

Hybrid system more inclusive

In North Stonington, a $2,367 investment into high-tech hybrid meeting equipment has proven successful. That was, until Tuesday's Board of Selectmen meeting was adjourned and postponed due to microphone issues.

One virtual attendee called the viewing experience a "terrible disservice to the town" due to muffled audio coming from the selectmen's microphones.

"This is much too important to not be able to listen to live or recorded later," the resident can be heard saying during the recorded livestream of the meeting posted to the Board of Selectmen's YouTube account. Since the board started meeting virtually at the start of the pandemic, all of its Zoom meetings have been livestreamed.

While meetings transitioned back to in person last month, the livestreams have continued thanks to the town's equipment investment. Microphones, speakers and mixing boards are available for all of the town's boards and commissions to use, First Selectman Mike Urgo said. So far, only the Boards of Selectmen, Education, Finance and the Planning and Zoning Commission have utilized the equipment to continue hybrid meetings.

Urgo said the town is not requiring its boards and commissions to continue hybrid meetings, and some will likely opt to stay fully virtual. The town also has two different Zoom accounts to ensure all boards and commissions have virtual meeting capabilities in the event of overlapping meeting times.

"We want to try to be as inclusive as possible," Urgo said. "I think having the hybrid component allows for more inclusivity and just more accessibility to town government."

Despite Tuesday's technical disruption, Urgo said he is proud of what North Stonington has done to adapt to virtual meetings. He said the town's support staff continues to test and improve the technology.

"I think the benefits far outweigh any of the detriments to the remote access ... it's a really great opportunity for people to participate in their government, and not just watch it, but also participate," Urgo added.

'We're on guard'

For New London resident Jennie Santiago, the need to continue offering a hybrid option is a matter of timing. She noted the pandemic is not over yet.

Santiago's husband is immunocompromised due to a heart transplant 11 years ago.

"Even though my family is post-COVID and we're all vaccinated because of my husband's condition, we basically have to act as if we are not due to the fact that he's still susceptible," she said.

She said she came down with COVID-19 in February, along with her husband and son. Her husband was hospitalized for 12 days, and she and her son have lingering health effects.

"With the surge of the new (coronavirus) variant, we have to continue to be very cautious because we don't want to get it again," she said.

She said she stopped working at Stop & Shop when the pandemic hit. She's not sure yet when she'll feel safe resuming life as she knew it before the pandemic.

"I guess when COVID is not around or the numbers are pretty diminished, then I can really take a deep breath again and feel safe," she said. "Until then, we're on guard."

Not 'a casual event'

New London Mayor Michael Passero told The Day last week he does not foresee the city offering a mix of remote and in-person meetings. "As a practical matter, I don't see it as workable at the moment. We're not there technologically."

He also said he was "ambivalent as to whether it's good public policy."

In Groton, Town Manager John Burt said the Groton Town Council began holding in-person meetings on July 6. The town used a hybrid component at last week's Town Council Committee of the Whole meeting that allowed some presenters to participate virtually. He said the format worked pretty well, though the town needs to tweak what it is doing to better enable remote attendees to hear what is happening at the meeting.

"I believe we'll be continuing to allow this component for our main meetings," Burt said.

The Town of Groton also televises meetings, including Town Council and Town Council Committee of the Whole meetings, on Groton Municipal Television.

The town used a hybrid component at a smaller meeting this past week by placing a laptop in the room, but faced some technical difficulties, Burt said. That included sound issues and the challenge of needing to have the laptop centrally placed to better enable people to hear, but then it became difficult to see if someone raised their hand on Zoom or if someone new joined the meeting. Attendees on Zoom also could only see in the direction the laptop was pointed.

"We are discussing how to improve on that experience," Burt said.

"We only purchased a couple large televisions and a little bit of equipment so far, but as we tweak the process there may be more needs," he added. "I'm not expecting there will be a lot of cost to it."

Reid Burdick, a former New London school board member and city councilor, said the return to live meetings is critical because of the "personal interaction" it provides.

"If you go to a public meeting and there's commentary and dialogue, it's always interesting to watch the actions of the elected body: who they're looking at, who they're getting little winks from, who they're getting nods from," he said. "You lose that interaction on Zoom."

Still, he said he doesn't see why there can't be a remote option, as well.

"Zoom is a very nice addition to accommodate those who cannot or just don't want to show up in person," he said. "But for those who are able, you got to get up, you got to get in your car. You have to make an effort to speak to your elected body. It isn't a casual event."

Melina Khan, special to The Day, and Day Staff Writers Kimberly Drelich and Greg Smith contributed to this report.