PLAINFIELD — Nearly a month after shutting down all committee and commission meetings due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, local officials are trying to figure out how to start them back up again.
Much of the hang-up stems from the chairwoman of the Select Board questioning if the groups of volunteers know how to run public meetings under the current circumstances.
The board held a special meeting on March 17 to address the virus that causes COVID-19. At that meeting the board decided to indefinitely cancel or postpone all meetings in an effort to stop the spread of the virus.
That order also applied to the Select Board, until it had to meet via the video conference program Zoom over concerns the state was planning on setting up a quarantine site at Goddard College. State officials have since reversed course on that plan, saying there is no longer a need for the facility due to a lower-than-expected amount of infections.
But committees and commissions have not been allowed to meet yet. The board took up this topic at its meeting Monday night, which was again held via Zoom.
Board chairwoman Sasha Thayer said she’s been researching ways for the groups to meet because they can only do so electronically. She said she hasn’t had much success with other video conference programs such as GoToMeeting or Skype and there have been security issues with Zoom. Notably, a meeting by a committee in the legislature earlier this month via Zoom was taken over by a hacker posting pornography.
She said in the past she’s participated in meetings via telephone and it worked well. She wondered if having video capability during a meeting was essential.
Board member Jim Volz suggested allowing the groups to meet either by Zoom or conference call and letting them decide which. Board member Tammy Farnham disagreed, saying she wanted consistency across all public bodies so residents who want to participate don’t have to search around to figure out how.
Road Commissioner Bram Towbin said there are ways to secure a Zoom meeting.
Thayer said these meetings are public and need a public record in accordance with state law. She said a committee member can’t set up their own account, run their own meetings and keep their own record.
Thayer said it also be challenging for people who aren’t comfortable with technology to be asked to use a video conference program.
“I think it’s really important to be realizing that we have a variety of technologically savvy people and we don’t want … to have people feeling that they have been marginalized because different committees are using different platforms,” she said.
Thayer said every committee or commission needs to have someone selected who understands the responsibilities of running meetings. She said meetings can’t be held “at the spur of the moment” and need to be properly warned. Plainfield doesn’t have a Zoom account, the meetings so far have been held using Thayer’s account. She said the town would need to set up an account that all other bodies would use.
Volz said the Select Board has been using Zoom so he didn’t know how the board could tell other bodies they can’t use it. He said all of the committees and commissions have chairs who have been appointed and have met pre-pandemic without any issues.
Farnham also expressed support for continuing to use Zoom, saying, so far, it’s gone well and residents have been able to participate. She said there isn’t time to find a perfect solution. Farnham said the other public bodies are already bound by the state’s public meetings law and if it turns out things aren’t going correctly the board can address it.
In the end, the board voted unanimously to approve using Zoom for public meetings going forward. The board is going to meet again Friday morning to touch base with town employees and is expected to approve expectations for committees and commissions at that time. The board is also expected to vote to allow those bodies to again meet, with the new guidelines in place.