Municipal leaders across Maine want the option to continue holding remote public meetings even after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, describing enhanced public access as one silver lining of the disruption caused by the coronavirus.

Prior to the pandemic, Maine was one of only seven states that did not explicitly allow municipalities to conduct public meetings remotely. So when state lawmakers granted that authority in March 2020 as COVID-19 cases first began appearing in Maine, town councils, school boards and other municipal governing bodies scrambled to figure out how to do it.

More than a year and thousands of meetings later, municipal leaders are asking the Legislature to extend that authorization indefinitely. Several bills pending with the Legislature – which is, itself, largely meeting remotely – would set the ground rules for public access and notice, opportunities for participation in remote meetings and how votes would be held.

Kate Dufour, director of state and federal relations at the Maine Municipal Association, told lawmakers Friday that municipalities were “really put to the test this year and, from my perspective, I believe we passed it.” While town office doors were locked, municipalities were still able to review economic development proposals, adopt budgets and make other critical decisions during the pandemic.

“We’ve illustrated to the Legislature, to the media and to our residents that we can be trusted with this incredibly important tool,” Dufour said while testifying remotely to the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

Dufour’s organization and some municipal leaders have been arguing for years that remote meetings should be an option available to communities that want it and have the technological capability. But pre-pandemic attempts to extend that authority frequently ran into opposition in a state with a still-robust tradition of town meetings and where access to broadband internet is spotty, at best.

Past opponents have also raised concerns that the technology could be abused to limit public participation – a real potential when organizers of virtual meetings via Zoom or other platforms control who speaks – or that it could somehow lead to less-representative government.

But Portland Mayor Kate Snyder said public participation and virtual attendance has increased during the past year as the City Council and various city boards or committees held more than 400 remote meetings.

“The challenges many people faced in attending an in-person meeting – child care, travel, long work days, and physical limitations, not to mention parking – are no longer an issue with remote meetings,” she said. “Councilors and board and committee members have also been able to participate in meetings that they would have otherwise had to miss due to similar restrictions.”

Remote meeting capabilities have also benefited residents of some of Maine’s smallest towns, villages and islands.

Only 30 percent of the property owners on Bustins Island, a cluster of seasonal cottages located a few miles off of the mainland in Cumberland County, live within driving distance of where meetings are held outside of the summer months. As a result, 70 percent of property owners on Bustins Island – which is a village corporation of Freeport but is self-governing – are “virtually disenfranchised from holding office or even attending meetings,” said Susan Spalding.

With the help of the temporary policy enacted last spring, Bustins Island’s board of overseers met remotely weekly for four months to prepare for the summer season amid the pandemic. Public participation in those and other meetings also increased, Spalding said.

“To sum up, remote participation is less of a convenience and more of a necessity,” Spalding said.

Nick Battista, senior policy officer at the Island Institute in Rockland, added that attending meetings can be “a costly affair” for island residents who rely on ferry service that sometimes only operates a few times a week. Battista said the framework outlined in one of the bills discussed Friday, L.D. 32, was the most workable for islands and would provide certainty to communities.

“To be fair, pre-pandemic, communities were already doing this,” Battista said. “They were doing it without the structure and process in place and with a fair amount of legal uncertainty. If you asked a lawyer if you could do this, the answer was usually, ‘Well, we don’t think so,’ but they did it anyway because they had to.”

That bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, would also extend the remote meeting authority to the bodies that oversee the University of Maine System and Maine Community College System as well as other state or regional boards and commissions.

Some of the pitfalls and challenges of remote meetings were also on full display during Friday’s Judiciary Committee hearing. Attendees had internet, video and audio difficulties as they tried to participate, and amended versions of the bills that were being discussed had been distributed to committee members but were not posted online anywhere for the public to find.

Numerous town and county meetings have been “Zoom-bombed” by outsiders or hackers intent on disrupting the proceedings, and tensions have flared in other instances when public officials either refused to allow public participation or turned off people’s video feeds.

One bill discussed Friday, L.D. 668, would impose a longer list of requirements on public bodies holding remote meetings. For instance, the bill would prohibit executive sessions – closed-to-the-public meetings that are supposed to be limited to legal, personnel, economic development or sensitive issues – when a meeting is held remotely. The bill would also require that all members of a public body identify for the record anyone else in the room – a provision aimed at forcing the disclosure of lobbyists, lawyers or other potential influencers present but off camera.

Bill sponsor Rep. Christopher Babbidge, D-Kennebunk, has been working on this issue for several years. But Babbidge urged his colleagues to use caution and ensure that there is adequate public accountability, which he said can be “somewhat compromised” when there are not opportunities for face-to-face interactions between elected officials and constituents.

“I think today we have finally seen the light of how remote can work effectively and has great advantages,” Babbidge said. “It has advantages environmentally and it has advantages with increased participation … but as we move forward now, I want to make sure we do this correctly.”

The committee has not yet announced work session dates for the various bills.


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