A product by Somerville-based Owl Labs, described to the Select Board by Town Manager Sarah Stanton Monday, can combine in-person and virtual government meetings.
The hybrid outcome may be ideal for elected boards that feel a need to get back to in-person meetings while accommodating residents who may prefer to participate or watch on their screens.
Select Board members are deliberating individually and expect to make a decision at their next regular meeting on Sept. 13. Board members noted that earlier they had committed to virtual meetings until at least Labor Day.
State policy relaxes the open meeting law and allows virtual meetings through next March.
“We have been looking at a lot of different options,” Stanton said, and decided to purchase the Owl product. “It tracks the sound of people’s voices and allows simulcast in-person and on Zoom. It does require a dedicated staff person to monitor sound quality.” The technology in the Select Board meeting room will allow both Bedford TV transmission and Owl, she added.
Stanton said she and Select Board Chair Margot Fleischman have reviewed the scenarios and that five policy-making and regulatory boards should use the Owl product for their meetings: Select and Planning Boards, Board of Health, Zoning Board of Appeals, and Finance Committee. She said the School Committee is addressing the issues independently.
“We will continue to encourage the public to be virtual,” Stanton said. But board members noted that protocols for live attendance will nevertheless have to be established, such as wearing masks and distancing, as well as room capacity. Stanton stressed that town staff will not be policing mask use.
She also advised that she and Fleischman feel that other appointed boards and committees should remain virtual until at least December, “out of respect to people who are reticent. There is push and pull between individual committee members’ comfort levels. The most equitable option is to remain virtual.”
Charlie Ticotsky of the Town Manager’s staff will be training committee chairs on Zoom management, freeing up professional staff from those frequent assignments, Stanton reported.
Fleischman observed that ultimately, a hybrid model may remain as “an open-government asset.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-983-1763