Michael Calise is a native Westporter, Staples High School graduate, former Marine, and a realtor. After a lifetime here, he knows how the town works.
And he keeps an eagle eye on it.
Calise is a frequent meeting-goer. At least, he was until the coronavirus hit, and Westport’s boards and commissions moved online.
They’re still there.
The other day, Calise wrote to 1st Selectman Jim Marpe. He said:
I am sure you are aware of the level of frustration endured by all of us regarding the inability to attend a public meeting.
Zoom meetings do not adequately convey the opportunity to participate in a meaningful way. The sense of where the commissioners or other deciding members are is missing. It is as if you are speaking to a blank wall.
This is not to downplay the fortunate fact that we have Zoom and other internet- based meeting venues. I fully recognize their value, but I think we need to do better. With the total decline of print media and other valuable sources of information in the face of ongoing important decisions being made, the entire structure of our community is under a great deal of stress.
With all of this in mind I suggest that you consider an outdoor venue such as Levitt Pavilion for town meetings. I believe it would be a positive and productive step forward as we transition back to normalcy.
Marpe replied quickly. He said:
As much as anyone, I would like to return to the past meeting structure that we were all used to for the reasons you note. However, we are still in the midst of the greatest public health crisis any of us have ever experienced, and it is unclear when we will be able to conduct public meetings as we have in the past. As a town, we are slowly and cautiously working our way toward incrementally re-establishing “normal.” But “normal” is still going to be different from the past for some time to come.
The elected and appointed leaders of Westport have a responsibility to balance public health requirements, the health of our employees and state-mandated protocols, along with the Freedom of Information Act rules, against the desire for some to meet “in-person.”
The reality is that we have received very few requests for a return to full, in-person public meetings. In many ways, Zoom meetings are more accessible for the majority of the public, because they can be viewed from anywhere there is internet access, which is why we have focused our efforts on the Zoom technology.
Most board, committee and commission members and the related staff members have found a way to work effectively and in a fully informed manner in this new environment. Moreover, they appreciate the commitment by the Town to their health and well-being. And the boards, committees and commissions continue to hear from members of the public via written comment as well as by phone.
Since mid-March, Town Hall has been closed to the general public, even though our employees have continued to work there or from home on behalf of our residents. We are currently moving forward to re-open Town Hall later this autumn for individual daytime appointments.
From a public meeting standpoint, Town Hall presents many challenges. The auditorium is problematic because of the need to sanitize the space after each meeting to a level of confidence that the various surfaces will not harbor the virus.
The other traditional meeting rooms in Town Hall present the problem of accommodating the typical number of attendees at an appropriate level of social distancing as well as sanitizing.
We ae exploring the possibility of using the Library Forum for some public meetings because the hard surfaces there are easier to sanitize and the space lends itself to easier social distancing for a significant number of people. I will note that the Board of Education has conducted in-person meetings in the Staples cafeteria with no members of the public allowed (similar surfaces and flexible space as the Library).
The Board of Finance will conduct an “in-person” meeting in the Library next week (face coverings and socially distanced), although the public will still need to attend via public access TV or internet streaming.
If all goes well, we may consider opening the Board of Finance meetings to the public for future meetings. That said, we have to recognize that even the Library will be limited in its capacity to host public meetings given its own programming and activities.
I want to stress that having in-person public meetings in the time of social distancing also presents Freedom of Information Act challenges. FOIA requires that no one be turned away from a public meeting. However, if we go over the 25 person indoor gathering limit, which includes board members and staff as well as the general public, we face having to choose between FOIA regulations and the Governor’s Executive Orders and related public health guidelines.
Your suggestion of conducting public meetings in outdoor venues such as the Levitt will quickly become impractical as autumn and winter weather begins in the coming weeks. Notwithstanding the practical challenges of streaming / televising from outdoor venues, weather concerns would work to prevent many residents from attending and actually limit the possibility of public participation. Ironically, this also presents its own FOIA issues.
We will continue to consider practical, inclusive alternatives to conducting the town’s public meetings in ways that maintain the public health and FOIA standards we must observe.
In the near term, that means that most public meetings will continue to be conducted via computer technology and public access television with ample opportunity prior to, and during the meetings for the public to submit their written public comments. Outdoor venues may become possibilities when the warmer months return.
Speaking of meetings: I have been thinking for a while of adding meeting coverage — Board of Education, Board of Finance, Planning & Zoning Commission — to “06880.”
I can’t do it alone. I need help.
If you’re interested in covering meetings on an ongoing basis — and you are knowledgeable, objective, and can write well and quickly — please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.