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Massachusetts City’s Public Meetings to Remain Virtual

With Worcester, Mass., City Hall closed since mid-March, the public has not been able to attend in person any city council or school committee meetings, or any board and commission meetings.

by Nick Kotsopoulos, Telegram & Gazette / July 28, 2020

(TNS) — Worcester, Mass., city and town halls have traditionally served as important public meeting places, where residents have been able to gather to express their opinions on the issues of the day, as well as engage the leaders of their community face-to-face.

But like many other communities in this state and across the country, that has not been the case in Worcester for a while now because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With City Hall closed since mid-March, the public has not been able to attend in person any City Council or School Committee meetings, or any board and commission meetings.

A lot has certainly happened at the local level during the past four and a half months, with many important issues discussed and decisions made.

But it has all happened without the public in attendance.

That's not to say there has no public participation. The public has indeed been able to participate in all these meetings - and hundreds of people have - but it's all been done remotely through virtual meetings.

While the virtual meetings have provided Worcester residents with a valuable link between the public and their city government, there have been glitches with the technology.

There are times when it is difficult to hear what people are saying because the audio feed cuts out or becomes garbled. And there are times when users' unfamiliarity with the technology makes meetings a challenge to follow.

The biggest glitch occurred during the July 21 City Council meeting, when a technical issue forced the council to recess the meeting for roughly 45 minutes.

City Clerk Nikolin Vangjeli said an issue cropped up with the WebEx account in the Levi Lincoln chamber, where the council meeting was emanating from.

When the problem could not be determined, the council meeting had to change WebEx rooms, so it moved to the Esther Howland Chamber at the other end of City Hall.

After an investigation by the Technical Services Department, Vangjeli said, the problem seemed to have been caused by a Cisco WebEx outage. He said everything on the city side was operational, but the WebEx platform seemed to be overwhelmed.

Also, there have been times when people have had difficulty getting through to the council meetings because the telephone conference lines have been overwhelmed by people wanting to speak.

Ah, the problems of modern technology.

All of which raises the question: When will the public be able to get back to old-fashioned, in-person attendance for meetings held at City Hall?

That answer isn't an easy one.

In an interview in May, City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. said one of the challenges was how to let the public back into those meetings.

He said a big concern is meetings that could draw crowds that would put social distancing to a test.

Not much has changed since then.

The concerns the city manager had in May were underscored at the past several council meetings, when score upon score of people phoned in to testify on police issues. As a result, the potential for large crowds at future meetings remains a concern.

And that concern isn't just with City Council or School Committee meetings. City Council subcommittee, or board and commission meetings that deal with neighborhood issues, have also been known to attract big crowds.

Given all that, like it or not, in this world of COVID-19 it looks like virtual public meetings could be here for at least a while longer.

But while the virtual meetings certainly fill an important void, it's just not the same as having the public being able to attend and participate in person.

©2020 Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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