As soon as practicable and feasible, the Gloucester City Council should return to business at their Dale Avenue headquarters in the spacious Kyrouz Auditorium. From there they should broadcast their deliberations remotely, allowing virtual public participation, while simultaneously allowing for in-person engagement.
This is the so-called hybrid approach to public meetings and the Legislature is poised to require it statewide, irrespective of local conditions.
Recently, the City Council decided that on May 24 it would return members to in-person meetings. Unfortunately, due to costly technical challenges in setting up remote City Hall meetings, council gatherings will be held in the Sawyer Free Library Friends Room — an area too small to conduct council business, accommodate the public and at the same time comply with the Massachusetts Open Meeting law. The public will have to continue to Zoom-in to observe and engage their local legislators as the statute requires every meeting to be open and accessible to the public, whether in person or on-line.
For now, the library basement will have to do, but only until July 15 when Gov. Charlie Baker’s COVID emergency order allowing remote meeting participation expires. That’s when Beacon Hill lawmakers are expected to take up the matter and make the hybrid rule a requirement for all meetings. That’s not good.
Here’s what should happen:
First, the Legislature should provide for the hybrid model of remote and in-person public meetings as an option and not a mandate. Hybrid is a good idea but only when the time, place and circumstances allow. To do that, Gloucester needs some money and time – two things Beacon Hill can help with.
A legislative mandate to go all-hybrid won’t work for Gloucester because, right now, it’s too costly and complex. The logistics alone of finding a suitable place to accommodate complicated remote broadcasting equipment without disrupting activities like schools is impractical.
However, once the council does return to City Hall, its deliberations should also continue to be live streamed.
One of the few blessings of the pandemic was that through remote access, those who previously could not trek to City Hall downtown at night suddenly had an opportunity to participate in their local government. Such groups include the disabled, people with child or elder care responsibilities, those without access to transportation, and the immunocompromised.
The hybrid approach should eventually be a permanent feature of council deliberations, mixing in-person and remote participation by the governing and governed.
Second, the Legislature should provide for the option to conduct remote meetings only. This will give Gloucester the time necessary to plan for, fund and establish the City Hall infrastructure necessary to do the combination live-stream and in-person thing. This choice will also make Gloucester more pandemic-resilient, allowing it to switch between the hybrid option and, because of the unpredictable nature of a virus that keeps reinventing itself, the ability to revert to all remote meetings when necessary. The Legislature should provide the flexibility to do that.
Third, the Legislature should provide a phased-in approach. The option to phase in over time would give Gloucester the opportunity to budget and plan for what will work best for the council, the public, and the law.
To remotely broadcast meetings would cost up to $100,000 in City Hall tech upgrades and installation work. This hybrid approach is a great idea, but not here and now.
For Gloucester, a phase-in would accommodate the city’s schedule as the historic City Hall soon undergoes restoration, and 400th anniversary activities get under way. It would be a waste of taxpayer dollars to install the expensive wiring and equipment this summer only to rip it out in preparation for the building’s makeover.
And the costs? The Commonwealth can help. Revenues for the fiscal year ending in June are trending $2 billion above projections, and the state still has more than $2 billion in federal stimulus aid at its disposal. Its emergency savings account is also expected to soon reach a record $5.76 billion and is likely to grow by hundreds of millions the over the summer.
When the anachronistic and dysfunctional Governor’s Council recently closed off remote public access to their often-embarrassing shenanigans, good government groups wrote: “More transparent and accessible government means a stronger democracy for all. When remote access became a necessity in response to the pandemic, it did not merely preserve public bodies’ ability to operate, it also opened the door to civic engagement for members of the public and many people who had previously been shut out.”
As we celebrate the 400th anniversary of America’s first seaport, let’s provide this generation and the next with an easy ability to observe and participate in the local democracy we have fought for as a nation and so proudly cherish today as a community.
Jack Clarke is a Gloucester resident, and frequent contributor to the Gloucester Daily Times.