Zoom – Decision to end Zoom participation in town meetings irks some residents
The announcement last week that Riverhead Town would end remote public participation by Zoom in public meetings has met with pushback from community members, as well as from Councilwoman Catherine Kent.
One Aquebogue resident has even launched an online petition asking the Riverhead Town Board to reinstate Zoom access and participation by the public.
At last week’s town board meeting, Riverhead resident John McAuliff told the board it was “entirely disrespectful to the community” to announce the discontinuance of Zoom participation by the public on the town’s website late in the afternoon the day before the regularly scheduled meeting. There was no public discussion leading up to that decision and no opportunity for the public to comment on the matter, McAuliff said.
“I think you should discuss it and I think you really are at fault for not having at least given the normal 24 hours for a change in the structure in which meetings take place,” McAuliff said.
Supervisor Yvette Aguiar replied that board members discussed the issue and agreed to end the use of Zoom after the conclusion of the board’s work session on July 16. She said that conversation took place when a reporter asked about it. The News-Review ran a story about it on on July 16, Aguiar said. Since the paper is “one of our official local newspapers,” the supervisor reasoned, the public had notice of the board members’ decision when the article went online, regardless of when the notice was posted on the town website. (The July 20 meeting itself was properly noticed by the town as required by law.)
Riverhead Town, like other government entities, began using the Zoom video conferencing platform last year to allow the public to participate in public meetings without in-person attendance. For much of that time, most public gatherings were banned by the governor due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The supervisor’s weekly state of emergency orders from March 2020 through May 18, 2021 said in-person attendance at meetings was prohibited. The ban on in-person attendance was officially lifted in late May, though the supervisor said the public was never really prohibited from attending meetings in person. “No one was ever turned away,” Aguiar said.
The governor’s executive orders during the state of emergency allowed members of public bodies to hold virtual meetings and take official actions virtually, as long as there was a means for the public to view or listen to them and a transcript of the proceedings was prepared and made available to the public afterward. The governor’s executive order did not address whether the public should be allowed to participate in meetings remotely, though that became a common practice.
Throughout the COVID-19 shutdown, the Riverhead Town Board generally continued to hold in-person meetings at Riverhead Town Hall, with the meetings live-streamed on cable television and on the town’s website. People who met with or made presentations to the board during work sessions and regular meetings generally did so via Zoom. The public was allowed to participate in meetings via Zoom also.
As the COVID crisis receded in New York, the governor rescinded the executive order provisions suspending certain requirements of the state’s Open Meetings Law and authorizing fully remote public meetings. The recession was effective June 24.
“There’s nothing in the Open Meetings Law that addresses public comment or public participation at all,” Kristin O’Neill, assistant director of the New York State Committee on Open Government said in a phone interview today.
Allowing remote public participation in meetings is at the discretion of the public body, O’Neill said.
At last week’s regular meeting, Councilwoman Catherine Kent asked that the town board discuss resuming Zoom participation at an upcoming work session.
“We work for the people. And what we want is to hear from the people,” Kent said, adding that many residents had contacted her to complain about the decision, which Kent said she had no part in.
Aguiar said Kent left Town Hall immediately after the July 16 work session and couldn’t be found, which Kent denied.
“We’re not going back and forth,” Aguiar said. “The public is always welcome here. You can always call me. You can always call my office. You can always visit us. You can email us. I even get texts. So we’re going to move on from this,” the supervisor said.
The subject was not on the agenda of the July 22 work session, nor brought up for discussion.
This week, Colleen O’Brien of Aquebogue started a petition on the change.org website asking Riverhead Town to reinstate Zoom meetings, “in light of the increasing numbers of the Delta variant of COVID and transparency in government,” the petition states.
“Zoom meetings allow Riverhead residents with busy schedules, health issues, lack of transportation and the inability to attend due to meeting times the ability to participate…” the petition continues.
“Zoom is also the now and future of group participation. We need elected and appointed officials who encourage and support all means of public participation,” it says.
Asked for a comment on the petition, Aguiar said today in an email the board will make a “final decision concerning Zoom” next week.
“The board in its entirety made the decision concerning Zoom, not the one member who encourages the use of Zoom to promote her political agenda,” Aguiar wrote in an email this morning.
“There are financial, scheduling and reorganization concerns, we are working on,” the supervisor added.
Councilman Ken Rothwell said last week using Zoom “put a major strain” on the ability of the town’s IT department to continue its work upgrading the town’s computer infrastructure. The IT department needs to get back to its regular duties, he said.
“The goal of the Town Board was to return our meetings back to pre-COVID operations, similar to Southampton’s approach,” Aguiar said in the email.
“Everyone is afforded the ability to call Town Hall, write to the board members, the clerk, along with emailing and of course attending our meetings. We work collectively as a board for the entire community,” Aguiar wrote.
“I encourage anyone who wishes to discuss this matter further to call my office,” she said.
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