Planners welcome extension of remote meeting format | Woburn | Panda Anku

WOBURN — The city planning committee recently welcomed the news that the state legislature has expanded permits for municipalities to hold fully remote and hybrid government meetings.

During a recent City Hall meeting, Director of Planning Tina Cassidy swayed local officials over the last-minute action by state legislatures to extend a number of exceptions to the open gatherings law shortly before they expire in July.

The renewal of the pandemic emergency measures allows government agencies to hold meetings virtually until March 2023. The special provisions also apply to other required public gatherings, such as B. Annual shareholder meetings of public companies and non-profit organizations.

The planning board, which is currently switching between in-person and fully remote meeting options, has been observing a trend for months with more citizens tuning in to virtual gatherings. Advocates of a videoconferencing option also say the session flexibility has allowed petitioners, who often rely on testimonies from outside experts such as architects and civil engineers, to proceed with public hearings and presentations when they would otherwise have asked for a continuation due to scheduling conflicts with their advisory teams.

“When we last met, we weren’t sure what was going to happen with remote meetings,” Cassidy said, recalling that the special pandemic regulations would expire just days after the board meeting in late July. “Since that time, the state legislature has extended remote meetings. This means we have the flexibility to meet in person or remotely.”

Under the State Open Meetings Act, government agencies are required to hold all official meetings in a public place with sufficient space for the general public to observe the proceedings. In front of the public, a member of a public body was allowed to attend via a teleconference option, but otherwise a quorum of the government executive had to be present in person at that gathering.

Shortly after Massachusetts Gov. Charles Baker used his emergency powers to ban large public gatherings and close “non-essentials” early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the chief executive signed an executive order opening portions of the law to open Gatherings have been suspended to allow remote meetings.

As officials in Woburn and beyond quickly become familiar with video conferencing services like Zoom, remote and hybrid meeting formats have proven extremely popular, particularly with parents of young children, professionals who work late hours, seniors who stay at home, and disabled citizens who have had difficulty making it to City Hall.

State legislatures, responding to calls from city officials and the public for continued remote meeting opportunities, have now acted at least three times to extend the emergency pandemic response.

A number of advocacy groups, including media organizations, are calling on the state legislature to amend the open gatherings law to permanently allow flexible meeting options. Under at least one bill proposed by state poles, cities and municipalities would need to deploy hybrid meeting technology that would allow the public to remotely attend any face-to-face meeting.

During the recent meeting, planning committee chair Claudia Leis Bolgen suggested the mandate might go too far, given that communities like Woburn don’t currently have the manpower or technology needed for hybrid meetings.

“It would be a heavy burden. This would mean that every meeting would need to be conducted in person and include a remote option. Technology and personnel are involved here,” the chairperson remarked. “Currently, the city of Woburn doesn’t have this technology, and I assume many other cities and towns don’t either.”

According to Cassidy, the Mass. Municipal Association (MMA), a government lobbying organization of which the City of Woburn is a member, is currently a funding source that accompanies any bill requiring hybrid meetings.

“The MMA and other groups have called it an unfunded mandate,” the planning director said.

Planner Michael Ventresca later expressed his support for legislation giving municipalities the flexibility to conduct both in-person and remote meetings.

“We’re definitely getting more participation from the community,” said the virtual gathering planner.

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