The following opinion piece, authored by the Information Technology Advisory Committee, first ran in the Belmont Citizen Herald.
Not long ago, the notion of conducting government business using tools like Zoom or Google Meet was radical. In fact, our IT Advisory Committee (ITAC) made a study of remote meeting technology a little more than two years ago. At the time – pre COVID – there were just a handful of towns in the Bay State that we could point to as having “taken the leap” to remote committee meetings.
Remote Meetings: Jumping In With Both Feet
What a difference a few months makes! With the advent of the COVID 19 pandemic in early 2020, cities and towns across the Bay State that had been dipping their toes in the water of remote meetings were forced to jump in with both feet and start swimming like Katie Ledecky. Indeed: the business of our Town of Homes has been conducted almost entirely via platforms like Zoom and Google Meet for more than 18 months. Despite some initial hiccups, most Town committees now use online meeting technology in their normal course of business.
The shift to remote meetings allowed Belmont town government to continue to function. Both the volunteer and elected bodies that do much of the work of the Town have continued to work remotely. And while all of us felt the effects of COVID-imposed isolation, Belmont committee members and residents found that there were benefits to the use of remote meeting technology. Committee members could take part in meetings from the comfort of their homes. Meetings that might have been cancelled due to inclement weather or an absent member could, instead, take place. That ease and convenience of attendance was a gift to both residents and our government: the business of the Town carried on, despite the isolation imposed by the pandemic. “Given our recent history, it is puzzling that our Select Board still has not voted to allow Belmont committee members to participate and deliberate remotely, as required under the State Open Meeting Law.”
A Puzzling Reluctance To Act
Given this very recent history, it is puzzling that our Select Board still has not voted to allow Belmont committee members to participate and deliberate remotely. The Town’s executive leadership must vote to approve this step under the State’s Open Meeting Law, which will again be in force when Governor Baker’s COVID Executive Order expires on April 1st, 2022. Absent such a vote, Belmont residents will be in for a rude awakening when that day comes: Town committees will once again be restricted to in-person meetings only, without the option of remote participation by committee members. If the pre-COVID status quo returns, most proceedings will not be streamed, meaning the public cannot observe or take part virtually. Residents who wish to have their voice heard will again need to be in the “room where it happens,” no matter the hour and location. Given this Town’s successful experience using platforms like Zoom and Google Meet, that kind of retrenchment would be a loss for our community.
A Common Sense Measure For The Post-COVID World
Mind you: under existing OML rules, government bodies need a physical (that is: in-person) quorum to meet. If the Select Board votes to allow remote participation, Belmont government bodies would simply be permitted to allow some members to participate remotely, under OML guidelines, when the need arises.
Will our Town’s IT department be compelled to purchase and deploy remote meeting technology into some public meeting spaces to support remote meetings? No. Can Belmont committees make do with the technology they have in the meantime? Yes. In fact, we have all been making do for the last 18 months.
This committee believes the Select Board has had ample time to deliberate over this matter and to have any questions about the practical and legal implications of their vote answered. We feel the benefits of remote meeting technology in Belmont government are self-evident and urge the Select Board to act: voting to permit remote participation and deliberation by members of Town committees.
Information Technology Advisory Committee members are appointed by the Select Board, the School Committee and the Library Board of Trustees. The Committee provides guidance to the Board of Selectmen, Town departments, and other Town committees on technology matters.