Massachusetts Residents Raise Concerns About Virtual Meetings

Newburyport, Mass., is continuing to hold its city meetings online, but residents are raising concerns that the public is not able to participate as easily. The format does not lend itself to open debate.

by Jack Shea, The Daily News of Newburyport / May 26, 2020
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(TNS) — The city is continuing to regularly hold virtual meetings on various projects, but some residents are concerned about the challenge to public participation that comes with the digital format.

Mark Griffin, an abutter of the Institution for Savings’ expansion project for its State Street building, is one of many neighborhood residents who have opposed the city’s virtual discussion of the project since the pandemic hit in March.

“The virtual meeting format does not provide the robust public debate you’d expect from a municipal meeting where citizens are given the ability to air their ideas and have a back and forth with a municipal board,” said Griffin, who noted he participated in several of the city’s virtual meetings.

In recent months, abutters of the bank have raised concerns about “massing” and the scale of the proposed two-story building at the corner of Otis Place and Prospect Street. The first floor would be for parking and the second floor would feature offices.

Griffin said while he believes the virtual meetings could be used to move smaller projects along, they are not the right medium for discussion of large, controversial projects such as the bank’s expansion.

“I understand that municipalities don’t want to put everything on a back burner,” Griffin said. “I don’t believe that important large projects should be permitted through this format. I believe a large project that has a large impact on the surrounding neighborhood and the city as a whole deserve a public hearing with full attendance.”

City Council President Jared Eigerman noted that the council discussed the issue of transparency with remote meetings back in March when the pandemic first hit, recognizing that remote public testimony “is not the same.”

“There’s a right that every American has for due notice and reasonable opportunity to be heard when decisions like this are made, so the question is what’s reasonable?” the Ward 2 councilor said. “We’re doing the best we can.”

Eigerman also noted that the council adopted a policy in March “disfavoring” coverage of controversial issues remotely, but said he recognized the city’s boards and commissions have to deal with time-sensitive projects.

“You have applicants trying to do work, so it’s not entirely fair to keep postponing,” he said.

When it comes to the Institution for Savings expansion, Eigerman said while he could see postponing action on the project, there is a need to be fair to the bank, which has been in the planning stages for months.

Revised plans for the project are set to go before the Planning Board on June 3 at 7 p.m. via the Zoom conferencing program.

In a statement, Michael Jones, president and CEO of the 200-year-old bank, said last week he is confident the revised plan “addresses all of the concerns we have heard while meeting the requirements of the Downtown Overlay District and more importantly, without impacting the historic significance, setting and place of the original 1871 building.”

Eigerman said he hopes residents and city officials are able to thoroughly review the plans before the meeting. He said it is important the plans show a change from the original applications, which were criticized by the Planning Board and Historical Commission before the pandemic began.

“I want the comfort of knowing the Historical Commission and the Planning Board think that those revisions are properly responsive, and that the neighbors have sufficient time to study the plans, ask questions to city staff so that if the hearing occurs as scheduled they don’t feel as though they’ve been kept in the dark,” Eigerman said. “I’m hopeful that if that occurs, that the meeting, although remote, will be reasonable.”

Mayor Donna Holaday acknowledged the difficulty of remote hearings, but said they are “the best we can do” until in-person hearings resume, which she believes would not be until September at the earliest.

“I think remote meetings are tough, there’s no question about it,” Holaday said. “They’re tiring, but we are faced with the reality of COVID-19. I think it’s the new normal, so to speak, at this point. Until we can safely disinfect areas and have good protocol in City Hall, (in-person meetings are) not going to happen.”

In the meantime, Holaday expressed a need to move projects along through the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals, saying that if everything is postponed until fall, applicants would miss the majority of the construction season.

“We’ve delayed the Institution for Savings for several months. It’s the best we can do at this point,” Holaday said. “I think there’s certainly been enough communication between the newspaper, our website ... I think there’s enough information out there.”

©2020 The Daily News of Newburyport (Newburyport, Mass.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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