CHARLESTOWN — In 10 days, the town of Charlestown will no longer be holding virtual meetings or broadcasting meetings live in a hybrid format, as town officials said Monday that state laws leave the community “with no other option.”
Town Solicitor Peter D. Ruggiero and Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz told members of the Charlestown Town Council Monday that Gov. Daniel McKee’s executive order pertaining to public meetings will expire effective July 23 and, in accordance with state public meeting laws, that means the town will need to return to hosting all meetings in-person only.
“As of July 23, it will fall back in step with the original law,” Ruggiero said. “Would it be possible to continue hosting virtual meetings? The short answer is no. Every public body and every member of a public body must revert to the prior requirements, which is in-person attendance.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, an executive order allowed for towns to shift to hosting virtual meetings rather than requiring in-person attendance as stated under the state’s public meetings laws. For many towns, the shift meant a transition to online-only broadcasts and conducting business through virtual meetings, as town halls were closed to any large gatherings.
The shift allowed for government business to continue under pandemic restrictions, and whether towns should be able to continue hosting virtual or hybrid meetings was a hot topic in Providence during the spring legislative session.
Although a bill that would have allowed hybrid meetings gained traction within the House of Representatives, the legislation stalled in the Senate. Ruggiero noted that the bill could be discussed again when legislators return this fall, but noted that it was highly unlikely that there would be anything prior to the executive order expiring in less than two weeks.
Ruggiero noted that, among the concerns debated, there were potential issues with open communication in conducting meetings via virtual or hybrid format and it could potentially lead to unanticipated or inappropriate interruption of public comments.
“If people are cut off, then how do you know? What is the remedy? It’s not clear,” he said. “Going forward, at least for the next few months, the in-person is the only platform you will have available legally.”
Town Council President Deborah Carney questioned whether the shift back to previous requirements would allow the town any freedom to require wearing of masks, or whether it would need to remain an honor system as has been used in many commercial places as well as Charlestown Town Hall.
Ruggiero said that the town would need to conduct business using the honor system — a sign at the entrance to town hall requests those entering town hall without a mask do so only if they have been vaccinated — and there was little other recourse for officials if those in the audience were not following mask rules.
Stankiewicz agreed with Ruggiero’s assessment and said without a change in state laws, there is little else the town can do.
“Without any enabling legislation, we don’t really have any basis to entertain hybrid meetings or continue with virtual meetings without risking being challenged, and if challenged, given the state’s stance on this matter, as the saying goes, ‘we’re on our own.’”