Town Councilwoman Terri Flynn asks her colleagues to reinstitute remote meeting access for the public, an idea most supported informally. Before it's put back, town officials want to have a better system in place to guarantee transparency and access.
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FLYNN: REINSTITUTE ZOOM MEETING ACCESS
MIDDLETOWN, R.I. (AUGUST 6, 2021) – Even though the state has waived its remote access requirement for public meetings, the Town of Middletown is considering keeping it.
While no decisions were made at an in-person session earlier this week, most on the Town Council spoke highly of the proposal from Councilwoman Terri Flynn to reinstitute remote access.
Based on everything she’d seen and heard, Flynn said remote access through Zoom online helped make Middletown government more open, transparent and accessible to all.
While in person meetings were preferred, Flynn said some can’t make such sessions in Town Hall, whether it was transportation, childcare or medical challenges. She also said some were simply nervous to stand up in front of others and speak their mind, something that Zoom and other remote platforms could solve.
“The more (people) that are attending, the more are willing to participate in local government,” Councilwoman Terri Flynn said. “The goal is to get people involved and remote public participation has been a successful way to do that.”
After the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, municipalities like Middletown were faced with questions they’d never had to answer before.
Besides addressing the health and safety concerns, one of the biggest was how to keep the business of the Town running without being in the same room.
Many – including Middletown -- turned to remote access programs like Zoom, where anyone could call or sign in online and listen and participate with their local government, whether it was the council, Zoning Board of Review, Planning Board and others.
Those remote access meetings continued until mid-July, when Governor Daniel McKee lifted the requirement.
At this point, all council members and those on appointed boards are now required to attend meetings in person. Members of the public are also allowed to attend meetings in person.
Based on her research, Flynn said using Zoom for a year would cost the Town about $8,800, money well spent in her mind to promote public access.
“It increases transparency, adds accessibility to government and makes Middletown more business and resident friendly,” Flynn said. “Personally, I don’t think we can put a price on public participation and I know the public appreciates the council’s consideration of this matter.”
“I think it’s a good thing,” Councilman Christopher Logan added. “I think the public having a say, having a voice if they can’t be in chambers with us is important. As we think about how we’re moving Middletown forward, their comments as we make decisions on their behalf are really an important thing to consider.”
Councilwoman Barbara A. VonVillas said she wanted to continue the remote access option, but not on an unlimited based. Rather, she’d like to see it be reinstituted for the right cost and be reevaluated at the end of the year.
“COVID has made a big change and that has many people reluctant to go out,” Councilwoman Barbara A. VonVillas said. “Certainly, that would facilitate people being able to participate.”
“COVID opened my eyes to a lot of things and certainly, this is one of them from a participation standpoint…” council President Paul M. Rodrigues added. “I think it’s great that people participate and people brought up some valid points, whether it’s childcare, whether you physically can’t do it, but you can do it from home, there’s no reason not to continue that.”
Always in favor of giving access to all, Town Administrator Shawn J. Brown said there were additional costs to bringing remote access to meetings that would need to be determined. If the Town was going the hybrid meeting model, Brown said he’d like to have a more permanent, high-quality system in place than the juryrigged system used to make it through COVID-19.
“We’re sort of patching our way towards having hybrid meetings,” Brown said.
“I don’t see Zoom going away,” Rodrigues said. “I think it’s another avenue for someone…If it gives them that platform, that comfort zone at home, then why not?”