Will Vermont Pandemic Era Online Town Meetings Ever End?

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Brattleboro City Manager Peter Elwell (center) appears to be the only local leader with energy in the fifth hour of a recent online selection committee meeting. Photo by Kevin O’Connor

BRATTLEBORO – The proverbial clock struck 10 p.m. when Brattleboro Selectboard member Daniel Quipp asked his colleagues when their online meeting would end.

Quipp wasn’t talking about the session entering its fifth hour, but rather the seemingly unbroken streak of it that he and his fellow Vermont city leaders have endured over the past year and a half.

“I hate Zoom so much,” Quipp said convincingly on the video conferencing platform. “I’m so tired of sitting in front of this screen.”

Local officials from the far north of Alburgh to the far south of Vernon are expected to spend a long winter drafting budget proposals for the March city meeting. The Brattleboro Selectboard had planned to do this in person every Tuesday starting November 2. Then, Vermont coronavirus cases increased as the number of other states declined.

“Here we are with higher Covid numbers than they’ve ever been, but we’re thinking we’re having a face-to-face meeting? The chair of the selection committee, Elizabeth McLoughlin, recently asked her colleagues. “I just don’t think it’s a good time for us to go back to an enclosed space for four or five hours.”

While many other towns and cities in Vermont are back in public meeting rooms, Brattleboro – who has fought the state unsuccessfully for the right to locally mandate masks – is one of many to hold on. This is why its jury has chosen to discuss two questions in each of the coming weeks: 1. What should a budget contain? and 2. When can members unplug their personal computers?

“I want this to be on the agenda every time,” said board vice chairman Ian Goodnow of the last point. “It’s very important that we come back to being in person when we can. “

Governor Phil Scott unintentionally triggered the situation in March 2020 when he declared a pandemic state of emergency. This prompted the legislature to approve temporary measures allowing for remote meetings that continued until Vermont hit a vaccination target last June.

Although Scott has lifted his Covid order, municipalities can maintain an online presence as long as they maintain “a physical meeting place for public participation” with at least one governing body member, staff member, or a designated person, the secretary of state’s office said. in a result memorandum.

“We hear that a lot of cities come together in a hybrid model – they have a Zoom or an optional phone, but many, if not most of the officials are physically in the room,” said Karen Horn of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. “That can change at any time of course, given where our case numbers are going – and they’re increasing.”

In Brattleboro’s case, that meant the selection committee had returned to their town center boardroom this summer while still offering the public the option to join via Zoom and community access television. But no sooner did the members get together than a spike in the Delta variant sent everyone back online.

Local leaders offered to move their meetings to a larger space with a modern air circulation system. But the jury favors consensus and, in this case, the five members do not all agree.

“I think it’s a great plan for when we’re ready,” McLoughlin said in the last online session. “But I’m just not sure that with the numbers that exist in Vermont right now, our next meeting is when to begin. I see that the benefit of being in person is less than the risk of potential infection. “

McLoughlin and fellow board member Jessica Gelter said they would feel comfortable meeting in person when the two-week local Covid rate drops below the current roughly 50 cases per 10,000 residents.

“I am concerned about those who have young people or the elderly with whom they are dealing who are not vaccinated or who are more vulnerable,” McLoughlin said. “I just don’t think we want to endanger the community.”

Members who complained that meetings last up to six hours spent a lot of time discussing the benefits of meeting in person rather than online.

“It’s Russian roulette with people and their health,” McLoughlin said.

“It’s living life,” retorted his colleague Tim Wessel.

Agreeing to disagree, the Brattleboro Board of Directors will continue to consider the matter, starting at its next meeting on November 2.

“If any of our board members feel that meeting in person is an irresponsible or dangerous thing to do, I’m not going to complain,” Quipp said. “But I really don’t want to stay on Zoom forever. The intangible benefit of being in a room together is intangible, but it’s an advantage.

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