In 1st online meeting, councilors OK funds for school, COVID-19 supplies

Gloucester's City Council members conduct their first ever remote meeting via Zoom on Tuesday night. Photo by of Taylor Bradford

For the first time ever, Gloucester's City Council and Budget & Finance Committee held meetings remotely. 

City councilors met virtually via the city's Zoom account to approve a budget request for resources to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus and approve a procurement method for the proposed combined East Gloucester elementary school. 

"Given the rapidly changing circumstances surrounding coronavirus, the city of Gloucester is taking significant unprecedented precautionary measures to limit person to person contact and to slow the spread of the virus," Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken wrote in the Mayor's Report for the March 24 City Council meeting.

In addition to the nine city councilors and five city administrators, community members logged in to the city's Zoom account to view the meeting.

The number of community members tuned in was not available before the Times deadline. 

Gloucester community members were also able to listen in via phone by dialing a number found at  http://gloucester-ma.gov/remote-public-meetings.

"I think overall it was a good first opportunity," City Councilor Steve LeBlanc said in regards to the online meeting. "Thanks to everyone for working together and let's get us through this social distancing challenge as soon as possible."

On any other given day, conducting official city business remotely would be against the law. 

However, in the beginning of March, Gov. Charlie Baker issued an executive order modifying requirements of the state's open meeting laws for public bodies to conduct business amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This order meant that public bodies, which include Gloucester's City Council and Budget & Finance Committee, are allowed to meet remotely as long as the public has adequate access to view or listen to the live meetings.

Preparing for the pandemic

The City Council approved Public Health Director Karin Carroll's request for $17,300 to deal with potential issues that might arise from the impact of the coronavirus.

This includes purchasing supplies, public notices and press releases, and to cover the cost of of a contract, temporary on-call nurse to help deliver critical support to the city's most vulnerable populations. 

"At this point, this is a relatively modest amount," the city's CFO John Dunn said. "These frankly are a drop in the bucket."

In the initial request, submitted March 4 to Romeo Theken by Dunn, this allocation of money was referenced to be a proactive measure for what might come. 

"Right now, we are being proactive should a case of coronavirus be identified in the area," Carroll said in a press release addressed March 4. "These steps are really no different than what we do to prepare for any other communicable viruses, like the flu. The risk of catching the coronavirus remains low and the flu remains a more prevalent concern."

Almost three weeks later, the city has five confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the mayor has declared a state of emergency to receive additional resources and support from the state in her efforts to combat the spread of the disease. 

Dunn continued to explain that they will be bringing a much larger request down the line as the city continues to respond the rapidly changing status of COVID-19's presence in the city. 

"We wanted to move this one forward," Dunn explained. "It is better to fund these things as they come along as opposed to wait."

Combining two schools

As the East Gloucester Elementary School Building Committee continues work on developing the vision of a new combined elementary school, the City Council voted to approve the procurement method. 

The School Building Committee selected the Construction Manager at Risk (CMR) delivery method.

This method entails a commitment by the construction manager to deliver the project — the combined elementary school — within a guaranteed maximum price. 

Dunn detailed that the CMR delivery method can be used on any building project estimated to cost $5 million or more. 

"It should be noted, the CMR method does not generally lead to a less costly project," Dunn wrote in a letter to Romeo Theken. "It does however lead to a smoother project and reduces the possibility of increased project costs/delays due to change orders."

West Parish Elementary School was cited to be an example of a project that used this method with satisfaction.

"It came in on time and under budget," Dunn wrote. 

Two public hearings scheduled to address building heights in excess of 35 feet at a property on Essex Avenue and Wingaersheek Road were opened and will continue until April 14. 

'Working out the kinks'

"We are working out the kinks now, that is for sure," City Councilor Melissa Cox said after City Clerk Joanne Senos' screen froze. 

During the Budget & Finance meeting, the committee did run into a technology issue when Senos' screen froze.

"During the conversation that John was and Tom Ellis, I had a frozen screen and I didn't hear everything. I didn't even hear the vote," Senos explained. 

The city's IT Director James Pope appeared on the screen to report that they were recording and will make the footage available with the minutes available immediately.  

Other members of the Committee agreed that the glitch was only on Senos' end and the video should be complete for recording and public viewing. 

During oral communications at the City Council meeting, Linda McCarriston attempted to speak but a technological difficulties on her end prevented the Gloucester resident of being heard through the Zoom platform. 

Pope appeared again on the screen to walk them through the glitch and suggested community members test their video and audio if they know they will be interested in speaking to the council in the future. 

City Councilor Valerie Gilman said she would contact McCarriston after the meeting. 

While there were a few glitches throughout both meetings, councilors were overall impressed with their first try and account one man for the evening's technological success. 

"I want to proclaim today National James Pope Day," Cox proclaimed at the end of the City Council meeting. "Much thanks to James. This was phenomenal and thanks for getting us up and running on this."

Staff writer Taylor Ann Bradford can be reached at 978-675-2705 or tbradford@gloucestertimes.com

Cape Ann Covid 19

Here are the numbers of confirmed cases in Cape Ann's communities as of Tuesday:

Gloucester: 5

Rockport: 2

Essex: 1

Manchester: 1

Essex County: 118; 1 death

Massachusetts: 1,159; 11 deaths

Recommended for you