Is it possible there could be a small silver lining to the cloud of COVID-19 that has hovered over us the past two years? Due to the pandemic, municipal meetings went virtual. That meant no meetings in City Council chambers or at City Hall. What could be the silver lining in that? It provided an opportunity for people to become more aware of issues, simply because they could watch or listen from the comfort of their home or office, and it led to increased public engagement, because people did not have to be physically present to have their voice heard. In some people’s mind, remote meetings were more efficient.
Yes, there were technical issues in the beginning, but it is now safe to say that maybe 70 percent or more of the general public have logged into a Zoom family chat or a municipal meeting. And for the most part, things have gone smoother, technically.
As restrictions are easing, and some meetings are being held in person again, we have a new issue to confront. Understanding what people are saying while wearing a mask is challenging. Therefore, it will be key for whoever is leading a meeting to ask speakers to remove their mask or speak clearly into the microphone. The recording of the recent Charter Review Commission even had subtitles of the running dialogue, which was an interesting feature.
At Newport This Week, we feel it is newsworthy for our writers to cover meetings beyond the larger and more obvious ones like City and Town Council, School Committee and Planning Board. We think it is important to let residents know about the discussions taking place. We feel it is a sign of respect to the members to share their discussions on topics that come under their purview.
Newport has nearly one dozen boards and commissions made up of volunteers, with many professionals in their field who give of their time to prepare above and beyond actual meetings that can last three and four hours. Longstanding commissions in Newport include the Tree & Open Space, the Energy & Environment and the Beach commissions. Newer commissions and groups have recently been formed, such as ones on Charter Review, Redistricting, the North End and the Tax Ad Hoc committees.
Knowing when these meetings will be held should not be guesswork. All committees, groups or boards doing business on behalf of the city should have their upcoming meetings clearly posted on the city’s website. The state’s open meetings act requires groups to file their meetings 48 hours in advance, so locations or links to virtual meetings would have to updated. But at least people would know in advance when a group is scheduled to do business.
We would like to take it one step further. One suggestion is to add the School Committee and School Building Committee meetings to the city website. It would be helpful to have all these important meetings in one place. Another idea is to allow hybrid meetings, where some members are in person and others participate via Zoom or other video conferencing platforms. With that said, elected officials and those appointed to boards and commissions should attend in person, whenever possible.
Newport has been working since October to improve the sound quality in City Council chambers. Hopefully that will be completed now that the council chambers are being used again.
The pandemic has brought numerous challenges, but perhaps being forced to take a different view on meetings has been one of the few bright spots.