STRAFFORD — Residents of Strafford will once again have the option of attending or participating in town selection committee meetings remotely, although the town hopes volunteers will come forward to help administer the online platform.
On August 10, the Selection Committee voted 3-2 to return to a hybrid meeting format, allowing residents to choose to attend meetings in person or remotely via the Zoom virtual platform. The vote overturns a previous board decision on June 29, when the board voted 3-1 to cease the use of Zoom, citing board frustrations with technology and communication issues.
Following Zoom’s shutdown, council members said they received at least 25 emails from residents asking council to reconsider, and were criticized by residents in comments on the city’s mailing list.
“I just didn’t want to fight this battle,” said selection committee chair Toni Pippy. ” We do not have the time. We have other work to focus on.
Pippy, who voted in June to end the use of Zoom, changed her vote following residents’ refusal, voting with board members David Paganelli and Brian Johnson to restore an online meeting option.
Pippy told the Valley News Monday that she still has strong concerns about providing a remote meeting option, due to its technical and communication challenges. Meetings were sometimes delayed or interrupted due to issues with the video or audio stream, or the inability to record a meeting for public records. Additionally, some online participants would have their video cameras turned off so that the board could not see their faces, or their microphones would not be on when they attempted to speak.
Board member Mary Linehan, who voted against taking over Zoom, said her main concern was the lack of experienced people willing to host Zoom meetings.
City Clerk Lisa Bragg typically hosts Zoom meetings, but when Bragg is unavailable, that responsibility falls to Linehan.
“Hosting Zoom isn’t easy,” Linehan said. “And no one else on the board knows how to do it.”
Linehan said she is no longer willing to volunteer as a Zoom host because it demands too much attention from her board responsibilities.
Council has discussed soliciting residents to host Zoom at meetings, although so far no residents have offered to volunteer, according to council members.
Although around 40 residents, in emails or comments, expressed support for Zoom’s takeover, “none of them stepped forward to ask if they could help (administer it)” , said Linehan. “Not one.”
If volunteers fail to emerge, selection committee meetings can only offer Zoom access when Bragg is available to host, Pippy said.
Pippy and Linehan said they believe the recent pushback from residents, including the emails to the board, was the result of an organized effort by one or two individual residents who had been strong advocates for maintaining the access to Zoom during the June 29 meeting.
“About 90% of them didn’t attend selection committee meetings,” Pippy noted. “So we’ll see how many people start attending (now).”
Pippy said she also took offense to residents who accused the council of not acting transparently. Rather, Pippy said, the board discussion on Zoom was held publicly and was posted on the meeting agenda.
“We’re transparent all the time, whether we’re using Zoom or not,” Pippy said. “The very idea that people thought we weren’t transparent bothered me.”
While Vermont law under Bill 78 allows city or school councils to meet entirely remotely under specific guidelines, until January 2023, the law does not require councils to offer an opt-in option to distance.
Strafford, a town of 1,094 people according to the 2020 census, has “variable” public attendance at town selection committee meetings depending on agenda items, from two to more than 25 people, according to members of the selection committee. The Zoom platform recorded an average of additional attendance between two and 10 people.
Pippy said she anticipates situations where a remote option is advantageous, such as a scheduled chat with a guest or government official who lives in another location, or when seasonal conditions make travel on local roads difficult.