Members all expressed regret that the recent surge in cases of Covid-19 precludes a comfortable return to in-person meetings.
The state law that suspends provisions of the open meeting law to permit virtual town government meetings expires on April 1.
Select Board member Emily Mitchell enumerated three important events in town government that will require actual participation: the Jan. 4 citizens caucus, the March 12 town election, and annual town meeting, which will begin on Monday, March 28. “I don’t think it makes sense to add other in-person events that could put at risk any of those,” Mitchell remarked.
“We all hoped and expected we would be in a different place right now,” said board Chair Margot Fleischman. She pointed out the rapidly changing Covid landscape, and concluded that “the ramifications seem significant to gathering and being together in person.”
Mitchell acknowledged that some governmental activity is “just better in person.” She added that there are board and committee members who “have never had the experience of sitting around a table. I do want to get back to that.”
One of those is Select Board member Bopha Malone, who was elected on March 14, 2020. The last in-person meeting of the Select Board was on March 11.
“I keep on thinking, ‘When do I get to be there?’” Malone laughed. She added, “We do have to think of everyone’s safety first.” She recognized that it’s hard to build relationships through Zoom, but also “on the bright side, we have more participation. The amount of civic engagement has increased.”
Malone suggested revisiting the issue before the end of March, but the preference was to wait the full three-plus months. Some residents who might attend have children too young to be vaccinated, board member Edward Pierce pointed out. He recalled the last time the Select Board discussed moving off Zoom, it was assumed December would be safe. “Just think if we had relaxed it in October,” Pierce said.
The current Covid-19 variant “could lead to the next variants,” said member William Moonan, who made the formal motion for the continued remote meeting policy. Moonan may have attended his last actual meeting, as he has announced he will not seek a fifth term.
Town Manager Sarah Stanton detailed the results of a survey of volunteer board and committee members conducted a couple of weeks ago. They were asked about the preferred meeting format for January through March.
She said 54 percent favored remaining on Zoom; 22 percent voted for in-person meetings; another 11 percent supported in-person meetings with distancing, the remainder added a variety of qualifiers to actual meetings.
Stanton said there were no board or committees in which the opinion was unanimous, one way or the other. She told the board there were 81 responses. That is fewer than half of the total number of volunteers.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com, or 781-983-1763