Towns move the public sphere online
A screen shot of a virtual meeting of the Dummerston Selectboard on March 25.

Towns move the public sphere online

Boards, town officials, and constituents rapidly deploy technology as a new state law clears the way for online meetings and elections

Communities are reminded daily that COVID-19 has touched every part of their collective lives. This fact rings loud for Vermont's democracy, which depends on citizens' participation.

On March 25, Dummerston Selectboard Chair Zeke Goodband called to order the board's first virtual meeting - one that took place online, with participants joining in via telephone or internet.

He then turned the meeting over to fellow member Jerelyn Wilson, who quickly taught those attending the public meeting how to navigate the Zoom video conference platform.

In Brattleboro, at an April 2 special meeting of the Selectboard, Chair Tim Wessel welcomed members of the public to the town's first web-based board meeting over the platform GoToMeeting.

Welcoming participants to “this strange and difficult time we're all in,” Wessell predicted that the community would “get used to this method of meeting over the next few weeks.”

“I hope everyone is well and I hope everyone's haircuts are holding out for the time being,” he noted.

State attempts a balance

In a time of social distancing, state officials have worked to preserve the public's right to know, right to participate in, and the right to access its government.

“We have to adjust the way we do business these days,” said Secretary of State Jim Condos. “But we all have to keep our eye on the ball of what's happening [at the local and state levels].”

At the end of last month, the state Legislature passed a bill, signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott on March 31, outlining how the government will operate during the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically focusing on holding open meetings electronically and changes in election procedures for 2020.

While holding meetings on the internet feels like a big change, Condos explains that little has changed regarding the temporary provisions in the legislation.

Condos said the Legislature has temporarily made the following alterations to open meetings:

• The requirement that meetings have a single, designated physical location that the public can access has been waived. Also, town staff and board members are not expected to be present at a single physical location.

• A public body can hold electronic meetings. These meetings must allow the public to attend and - given the state's lack of universal high-speed internet service - include both phone and internet access.

• Agendas must include information on how the public can access the electronic meetings.

• Selectboards and School Boards must record their meetings.

• In the event of a staffing shortage, a public body can extend the normal five-day deadline to produce minutes to 10 days. Condos warned that the provision does not mean that the standard turnaround time for minutes has been lengthened; the extension is to be used only if necessary.

Condos said he advised the Legislature to keep the changes to open meetings “as minimal as possible.” He said that he wanted to make the changes easy to remember but also simple, since they're meant to be temporary.

“People are trying to comply,” Condos said. “It's really is about making sure that we have the right things in place to protect people's right to participate, attend, and right-to-know.”

Election law adapts to COVID-19

Highlights around changes to the state's procedures for the 2020 election include:

• Candidates don't need to gather signatures as one of the requirements for appearing on a ballot. Condos estimated that during the traditional eight-week period for gathering signatures, 40,000 to 50,000 people from across the state usually sign petitions. That's a lot of people in close contact touching pens and clipboards, he said.

• The submission period for providing the necessary paperwork to run for office was shortened from four to two weeks.

• The new law also gives the secretary of state and the governor the authority to make changes to the election process if necessary. For example, they could require voting by mail or extend the deadline for counting ballots.

“Everything we're doing is to protect the health and safety of Vermonters while still allowing them to hold government accountable,” Condos said.

Good intentions and 'stumbling blocks'

Longtime public right-to-know reporter Michael Donoghue sees most municipalities trying to comply with the requirements of transparency while practicing social distancing.

“In fairness to all the officials, they're trying to make the best of a bad situation,” he said.

Donoghue, a freelance reporter, also serves as Executive Director of the Vermont Press Association (VPA) as well as a former board member of the New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC). For many years, he worked at the Burlington Free Press.

He stresses that maintaining transparency is more than holding open meetings. It also includes ensuring that citizens have access to information, meetings, and officials.

For example, he said, it's one thing for a municipality to post the Selectboard's meeting agenda in a public place, such as the town hall. It's another thing to post it in a public place which most of the community frequents: the library, the school, a popular coffee shop, or a local grocery store.

So far, the process of holding online meetings over platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams is going well, he said, but the process includes “stumbling blocks.”

Towns need to ensure that citizens know how to use the technology of choice, he said, noting that the coronavirus is also highlighting the “holes in connectivity” that exist in Vermont.

Donoghue applauded the Legislature's inclusion of sunset clauses into the COVID-19 bill, though he views the extension to 10 days for making minutes public as “troublesome.”

According to Donoghue, on three previous occasions the Vermont League of Cities and Towns had unsuccessfully lobbied the Legislature for a 10-day deadline.

“Suddenly, here we go again,” he said.

On behalf of the VPA and NEFAC, Donoghue said that it is necessary for taxpayers to have access to information about town business - in this case, minutes - quickly so they can make “proper, legitimate, and timely decisions.”

Donoghue hopes that, with more people staying home, they use the opportunity to learn more about how their community works.

This is a great time to become active in local government, he said.

Town business, internet style

Goodband thought Dummerston's inaugural online Selectboard meeting went well, noting that a simple agenda made for a good first-time meeting.

Depending on how easy it is for the board to conduct business over the internet, the body might defer a few more complicated items until later in the year, said Goodband, though he thinks the board will end up conducting all its business online.

“So we're pretty much up to speed,” he said.

Goodband thanked fellow board member Jerelyn Wilson for guiding the board through using Zoom.

Wilson is the CEO and outreach ambassador, as well as president of the board of directors, for Building Green, a company that specializes in sustainable design and building. She said that Building Green uses Zoom.

According to Wilson, at its last in-person meeting, the board discussed how it could meet and still practice social distancing.

Unsure of the answer, some board members suggested cancelling the next scheduled meeting. Wilson suggested Zoom, which allows people to participate in meetings over the internet or using a telephone.

“I was surprised that they warmed up to the idea pretty quickly,” she said.

Prior to their first meeting, board members and Wilson held mini–training sessions to get comfortable with the platform. Wilson also wrote instructions to send to everyone on the town's email list.

Though she is aware that people looking to disrupt public meetings have used Zoom to do so, “We'll go along with a trusting attitude unless something comes up,” she said.

Wilson felt more worried that residents would all call in at once and overwhelm the system.

Of the first meeting, Wilson said, “We were really able to conduct our business but also comply with the open meeting law.”

That success is critical to townspeople feeling confident that Dummerston's business is moving forward despite the sense of uncertainty created by COVID-19.

Overall, Wilson said she felt proud of the town staff for responding to the pandemic quickly while also maintaining town operations.

In addition to Zoom, Brattleboro Community Television also recorded the meeting and broadcast it over its television channels and social-media accounts.

Regarding the town's compliance with the state's open meeting law, Goodband believes that the public retains its access to its local representatives and to how its elected officials conduct town business.

He has not received feedback from community members about the first online meeting.

“We're just concerned with keeping people safe and healthy,” he said, adding that town staff work from home if their job permits. Other employees that must work onsite, such as the road crew, work in staggered shifts.

One piece of in-person meetings that Goodband misses is what he calls “pulse of the town” moments.

When people meet face-to-face, they inevitably share those side conversations while standing in the parking lot, he said. These are moments where neighbors share updates, touch base, and learn about what else is happening in their community.

“With distance, it seems we're missing out on that now,” he said.

Brattleboro's Town Manager Peter Elwell said in a message that the Selectboard's first meeting went well.

“The GoToMeeting platform worked as planned for all the participants,” he added. “We've had no complaints from online observers.”

Elwell said the town did learn that the BCTV transmission became “choppy” for some viewers. He believes the station has corrected the issue.

The board encourages people to join the meeting using the internet, but phone lines are available.

“We didn't get any callers Thursday,” he said. “So we'll see how smoothly that part will work.”

Looking ahead to the elections

Tim Arsenault serves as the town clerk for Vernon. He also has more than 40 years experience as a radio reporter and news director.

“I think they're [the government] doing the best they can under a horrible set of circumstances,” Arsenault said during a phone interview.

One of his big concerns with switching to web-based meetings is that the disruptive hacking that has happened on the state level will filter down to local meetings.

Last week, hackers porn-bombed a web meeting of the Vermont Senate Agricultural Committee.

To protect against such behavior, Vernon has instituted a policy of not making the password for its Selectboard meeting public. Those wishing to attend must contact the town before the meeting and obtain the password.

Arsenault added that, in the digital age, “thieves can get into your living room.”

Regarding potential impacts to upcoming elections, Arsenault said he will follow the Secretary of State's guidance. Many people are already used to early voting by mail, so he feels people will adapt well if the state goes that route.

As a Town Clerk who enjoys seeing voters at the polls, Arsenault said he will miss same-day registration, which he felt was a successful program.

At the March 3 elections and presidential primary - “It seems like March 3 was a year ago now” - Arsenault said approximately six 17-year-olds voted.

Under Vermont law, any 17-year-old who will turn 18 before an upcoming election can vote in the primary.

Arsenault would like the state to allow towns to install drop boxes so voters can drop off their ballots.

He praised the hard work being done by lawmakers and state employees to respond to the COVID-19 virus and keep the state running. He thanked town employees and residents for adapting to social distancing as best they can.

“We are one big community,” he said. “And the entire community is stepping up.”

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