Let’s Meet! But Where?

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.

Mike Calise

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.

In August, superintendent of schools Tom Scarice addressed the Board of Education via Zoom.

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.

The scene at Town Hall, when meetings were held there.

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: dwoog@optonline.net. 

Let’s chat!


7 responses to “Let’s Meet! But Where?

  1. I agree in someways the town can be more creative in providing town services. I think most would agree that as of now they are sorely inadequate.
    Try getting a human to talk to at town hall..it doesn’t happen. Voicemail and emails are not acknowledged or returned.
    The town is more than willing to allow venues at the imperial lot that allow movie goers to sit in or outside their cars with the motors running through the movie. I’ve witnessed this. Thought the town had a policy on idling.
    One person had her dog so she said he had to keep the car running for the ac. Leave the dog home!

  2. Well said, Michael.

    And a typically long winded technocratic response that – as is so often the case with this administration – manages to include a phrase to let you know you’re practically the only one with the concern at issue.

    My sense is that the person who penned that response LOVES the new normal; no annoying residents freely wandering the halls to gain unfettered access to those they are seeking during the day. And no heated public meetings at night in the auditorium.

    It’s a fortified paradise.

    When the dust settles and the administration gets its newly requested money for “security” upgrades to our town hall, expect to no longer be able to just walk into the building and go to the office you’re seeking. Expect to encounter a gatekeeper. And be escorted to your destination. Or perhaps rebuffed if some kind of DMV type of appointment regime is added to the defensive thicket.

  3. Mr Calise I applaud you for trying to come up with creative solutions to keep our town connected. Mostly, I am impressed that you were able to get a quick response from our first selectman’s office! What’s your secret?

  4. Kristan Hamlin

    Michael’s suggestion was a good one but Jim Marpe’s response makes total sense.
    Look what happened at the Rose Garden judicial nomination? The town liability for mandating in-person meetings during a pandemic is problematic. Moreover, with zoom, now one can see the faces of all the RTMers during the meeting instead of the back of their heads.

  5. Sally Palmer

    Just spent a good hour trying to get into the town’s website for information….impossible. I’m not a total idiot but there has to be an easier way.

  6. Donald Bergmann

    Just want to add my voice that the absence of in person meetings is of course a negative, though there are subtleties as to all forms of meetings. Personally, when I know there will be a follow up meeting on a topic of interest to me, , e.g. so often with the P&Z Commission, I like to watch the first meeting on the topic and then decide if my presence and speaking at the second meeting on the topic appeals to me. As to F.O.I.A., my sense is that F.O.I.A. violations as to attendance rights are unlikely to be pursued or successful during this unique time. Our laws need some flexibility.
    Don Bergmann

  7. Michael Calise

    Outdoor meetings as I have suggested have been used successfully numerous times over the past few months for a wide array of purposes without complaint or failure. Disinterest by those on the inside looking out is truly unfortunate. I can personally attest to a number of citizens who have been disenfranchised, as to the impact on their lives, due to the inability to use current methodology. Additionally most meetings do not display the decision makers while you are speaking to them which is the blank wall I am alluding to. There is no question that the administration of First Selectman Marpe has conducted an admirable response to the threat of Covid 19 but I believe we are at a crisis point in terms of citizen awareness and interaction with our local government. We the citizens of Westport are on the outside looking in and it is a highly restrictive view lane which urgently needs to be repaired.