The Augusta Board of Education conducts its meeting Dec. 9, 2020, via the Zoom videoconferencing platform. Zoom meeting screenshot

GARDINER — Before the COVID-19 pandemic upended daily life across Maine, local government meetings were held in person or not at all.

Now, in one of the changes to emerge from the pandemic era, remote participation in municipal meetings is allowed under certain circumstances and elected officials are mulling policies on whether and how to allow remote participation, changing the way public business has historically been done in Maine.

The idea isn’t new but after nearly 18 months of restrictions on public in-person gatherings to slow the spread of a highly contagious and evolving respiratory virus, it’s starting to gain some traction, and not just for public health reasons.

Eric Conrad, director of communications and educational services for the Maine Municipal Association, said the organization had suggested to the Legislature over the last several sessions to allow such a practice.

“In a town with three select board members, say one person is sick and another spends a month every winter in a warmer climate, and all of a sudden they have no quorum,” he said.

Generally speaking, a quorum is the number of the board members — often a simple majority — who must be present to transact business.

If the elected official who is sick is able to call in to the meeting, then a quorum could be achieved, Conrad said. The same would apply for an elected official whose job requires travel or who was away on vacation.

“We’ve said all along that remote technology is something to be considered if used prudently,” he said.

The Hallowell City Council meets March 8 over Zoom. Screenshot via Zoom

During the pandemic, MMA’s member municipalities used remote technology under the emergency legislation passed in 2020 to allow them to do so. City and town elected officials showed they could handle opening meetings and have open discussion.

“What nobody really expected, including us, is that public participation went up,” Conrad said.

Under that emergency legislation, cities and towns were able to hold their meetings remotely until 30 days after the state of civil emergency ended. The civil emergency was allowed to expire on June 30.

Before the Legislature adjourned this year, it passed another law allowing cities and towns to set policies on allowing hybrid remote meetings, as long as some component of the meeting is public and in person, and it’s not used simply for the convenience of board members who could otherwise attend in person.

Not all local and regional government bodies have the capability to livestream meetings or allow remote participation.

In Skowhegan, Town Manager Christine Almand recently said the Board of Selectmen had not taken any action on creating a policy.

“We don’t have a policy on streaming meetings,” she said. “We haven’t taken any action on that, but we’ve been meeting in-person for a while now.”

Meetings for two Skowhegan boards, the Board of Selectmen and Planning Board, are streamed live on Facebook, and meetings are held in-person in the municipal building.

Meetings were held remotely during a portion of the pandemic, but with the end of masking and distancing requirements at the end of June, the boards shifted back to in-person meetings.

The Regional School Unit 2 board of directors hosts a special meeting April 15 over Zoom. The board voted to have early release days on Fridays, occurring monthly, in the 2021-22 school year. Zoom screenshot

In Gardiner, where meetings were livestreamed on the city’s website before the pandemic, city officials have been conducting meetings using Zoom since early in the pandemic. The City Council has taken the additional step of livestreaming them on Facebook.

When Gardiner city officials took up the debate at the July 21 City Council meeting, in rare split votes on whether to allow remote components of meetings and on the policy defining how that can happen, the City Council opted to allow remote participation.

Both At-Large Councilor Tim Cusick and District 1 Councilor Terry Berry both favored limiting remote options, because they prefer in-person meetings and because of the costs of providing the technology to make it happen, with one cost estimate of $25,000.

“We’ve never not had a quorum,” Cusick said. “I think it’s important to be in person, and we get better results in person.”

He’s also concerned about the cost of putting technology in place and the unknowns.

They voted against both motions.

But District 3 Councilor Colin Frey took a different tack in supporting adopting a policy.

“The pandemic isn’t over,” Frey said, noting that members of the city’s committees have extenuating circumstances and family that they are concerned about, including children who are not yet old enough to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

“While it might be fine for us to meet in council chambers, I think there are committee members who would like to see us take action on this so they can continue to participate remotely,” he said.

As he’s taken part in community activities and during his time on the City Council, Frey said two concerns have been constant — the lack of participation from the community in general and in particular by younger people for whom technology is an integral part of their jobs and their lives.

“If we don’t meet them on their turf, it’s going to be harder to get them involved,” he said. “These platforms aren’t going anywhere.”

He said he’d like to see remote participation be integrated, and District 4 Councilor Marc Rines agreed.

In early August, the Kennebec County commissioners, who have met on Zoom and in person during the last 18 months, also adopted a policy. Under it, elected officials are expected to be physically present at meetings except when doing so is not possible for reasons set out in the policy — illness or other conditions that makes attending difficult, or an emergency that requires a virtual meeting are two of them. Members of the public who wish to attend remotely will be allowed to.

Meanwhile, in Norridgewock, selectmen decided at a meeting in July to adopt a policy outlining the guidelines for remote participation for the Board of Selectmen. Officials also began streaming the meetings live on Facebook and Zoom on July 21. Selectmen are still required to attend meetings in person and may only participate remotely if they are ill or otherwise unable to attend.

Gardiner Councilor Frey, at the July meeting, said his hope was that coming out of the pandemic, people would be more ready to accept the technology options that are becoming more widely available and usual.

“I do think that settings that are more inclusive in this way, that allow people to participate in ways that are more comfortable for them, are going to be the ones that flourish,” he said.

The policy that Gardiner adopted is a good start, he said, but he hopes that in the future Gardiner can expand on it.

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Taylor Abbott contributed to this report. 

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