WALLINGFORD — Several boards and commissions have resumed in-person meetings, but some are wondering why, citing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and alternatives for virtual meetings.
Sam Carmody, Zoning Board of Appeals member, wrote a letter to Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. last week expressing his displeasure with the resumption of in-person meetings after a ZBA meeting was held Monday at Town Hall.
Carmody said in the letter that meeting in person creates an “unnecessary risk” when a remote meeting is a viable alternative. The town has been using the virtual meeting platform GoToMeeting since March.
“If in-person meetings are unavoidable,” he said, “more needs to be done by staff and town personnel, rather than board and commission members, to assure that Wallingford's leadership exerts a maximum effort to keep public meetings from being a super-spreader event.”
Town Corporation Counsel Janis M. Small issued a memo Sept. 1 with guidance for resuming in-person meetings with Town Health Director Stephen Civitelli, after she was approached by the chairs of two land use boards, the Planning and Zoning Commission and Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission, who were willing to come back in person.
Town Assessor Shelby Jackson created a GoToMeeting account in March for the Board of Assessment Appeals, which the other land use boards were using.
Jackson closed the account last month. He said that although he was willing to buy the subscription on a temporary basis to facilitate meetings for the Board of Assessment Appeals, “at some point it had to end.”
He said the subscription was around $19 per month. Town Comptroller James Bowes did not return requests for comments or GoToMeeting statements submitted for reimbursement.
Protocols for in-person meetings laid out in Small’s memo include wearing a face mask, except when speaking and only when at least 6 feet from others, maintaining 6 feet of social distancing through seating arrangements and using the hand sanitizer provided in touch-free devices.
“Chairpersons should consult with staff regarding the upcoming agenda and the expected turnout by the public,” the memo stated. “If there are concerns that a large number of people may attend, staff should look into moving the meeting to a larger location,” such as Town Hall council chambers.
“We do have to deal with the fact that it is a continuously evolving circumstance,” Small said Thursday, “and if it gets worse, obviously we will have to deal with it.”
Dickinson said Friday that the town needs to “follow suit” with the state reopening guidelines and “encourage the meetings as they were originally planned to occur, which is in person and people being able to do business in person. If people are uncomfortable with that, it’s not a mandatory thing, but certainly we encourage that we meet.”
Gov. Ned Lamont said Thursday that Phase 3 of the state’s reopening is scheduled to take effect Oct. 8, which increases the number of people allowed to be at businesses and gatherings.
Dickinson also said that “an awkwardness occurs” during remote meetings.
“People generally deal differently with each other when they’re in person rather than remotely, and if you get into any substantive analysis and issues that require information and depth of knowledge, there’s no comparison with in person. It’s far more efficient and a better way to communicate.”
Dickinson issued a memo March 27 indicating that boards and commissions should only meet “when necessary to conduct substantive business,” and he otherwise recommended canceling meetings.
The groups that have met in person since late August include the Public Utilities Commission, Economic Development Commission, Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission, Recreation Commission, Planning and Zoning Commission, Zoning Board of Appeals and Board of Health.
Some have met at Town Hall in the Robert F. Parisi Council Chambers, while others have met in meeting rooms at Town Hall or within department offices around town.
It’s up to the board and committee chairs to determine whether meetings should be held in-person or remotely.
The groups that have resumed meeting in person have three to seven members. The Town Council, at nine members, has not resumed meeting in person.
Town Councilor Chris Shortell proposed in July creating a set of protocols for going back to in-person meetings, after the Public Utilities Committee held an in-person public hearing on revisions to water and sewer rate changes July 16 at Town Hall council chambers.
He wanted the Town Council to set a precedent for other town board and commissions to follow, however he found a “reluctance on the part of the administration to dictate to boards and commissions.”
“The lack of guidance is, in effect, dictating the circumstances,” Shortell said Thursday. “If they wanted to, they could close the council chambers. They could say, ‘no meetings in Town Hall until the pandemic is over.’ That would solve all of this. To leave it up the boards and commissions, to me, has always been questionable.”
Council Chairman Vincent Cervoni pays for a GoToMeeting account and is reimbursed through the Town Clerk’s office expense account. According to records from the Purchasing Department, Cervoni has been reimbursed for $24.51 three times to cover the monthly subscription.
Cervoni did not return requests for comments.
GoToMeeting subscriptions were not provided by the town administration. There’s no town credit card that could be charged instead of having people use their personal credit cards.
Dickinson said Friday that it’s “a very firm rule” that the town doesn’t hold a credit card or provide them to employees.
Costs for GoToMeeting subscriptions vary — $16 to $19 per month before taxes and add-on features — based on how many participants are allowed and how many meeting organizers, who schedule and run meetings, are needed. Paying month to month costs more than an annual subscription.
GoToMeeting allows the public to watch and participate in meetings, a key point in Lamont’s executive order 7B — issued March 14 and recently extended through Nov. 9 — which suspended in-person open meeting requirements, but stated that the public must have a way to watch or listen to meetings in real time.