NARRAGANSETT – Since the pandemic brought about widespread lockdowns, town council and other government meetings have been broadcast over video communication platform Zoom, prompting wider participation and greater access to local government. As new cases of COVID-19 sharply decline and the pandemic begins to wane in Rhode Island, the Narragansett Town Council is weighing the option of allowing the public to continue to comment over telecommunications when in-person meetings resume. Though the meetings will still be broadcast on television, on Youtube and on Zoom post-pandemic, the body will likely not take virtual comments from the public going forward.
“I’ve polled the council on this question, I don’t want to make that decision on my own, and the unanimous consensus is that we do not want to do a hybrid, digital situation moving forward,” said town council president Jesse Pugh. “We will not be doing public comment through Zoom once we’re back in person.”
“We do want to have as much participation as possible from our local residents,” he continued. “One of the complications [of public comment over Zoom] that was not really foreseen but now we know, is that when you add that remote access for commenting, you do end up getting a large percentage of people that are calling from out of town that are not really engaged full time in the community. Which is not the worst thing, but we have a limit for how long these meetings can go.”
As of late, Narragansett Town Council meetings, spurred on by councilmember agendas, reversal of many controversial decisions of the previous council and the often-tedious nature of conducting public business via video communications, have run especially long. Most recent meetings have ranged in a 4-5-hour duration, meaning some do not conclude until past midnight. Both councilmembers and the public have expressed concern about meetings–which are held on Monday evenings–going so late into the night.
Meanwhile, the council has entertained two significant topics in the past year that have seen much public comment as the body works its way through public hearings and first and second readings of new ordinances pertaining to these matters. The first, the issue of student housing and rentals in town, has inspired much debate, and the council often hears from out-of-state property owners on the topic. The second, coastline access parking being expanded in Point Judith neighborhoods, has also brought on public comment from around the country, including Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, who reportedly owns ocean-view property in one of the areas targeted for a parking increase and recently publicly advocated against passage of new parking ordinances.
The council will still take public comment, through in-person testimony and written or emailed communications, once in-person meetings resume.
“But it has to be reasonable,” said Pugh. “You can’t take comment from across the world at all times.”
One change brought on by the pandemic is that meetings will now not only be broadcast on television, but on the internet as well. Pugh said it was the council’s intention to continue showing meetings live on Youtube and on Zoom. Recordings of all meetings will still be accessible on the Narragansett Town Council’s Youtube page.
“The only thing that will change is that we won’t be taking comment through Zoom,” he said. “What we would say to people that are not in town but would like to comment is email us the comments.”
At Monday’s meeting, Pugh said he had hoped to announce a return to in-person meetings starting the first week of June, though an extension of the state’s emergency declaration due to the pandemic had presented obstacles.
“I was hoping to have some different news this evening,” the town council president began. “The intent was to let everybody know that we’d be moving back to in-person meetings the first week of June. What I found out definitively today is that that is a more complicated issue due to the extension of the emergency order by the governor.”
Per the order, legislative bodies must follow certain requirements in conducting and broadcasting meetings. If the town was to move back to in-person council meetings, it would still have to provide a hybrid experience for the public, according to Pugh.
“That would be Zoom, as well as broadcast, to go along with our in-person [meetings],” he said. “That is a complication that we would not move forward with at this time.”
“We’ll know more as the weeks progress,” Pugh added. “If that requirement is not extended, we’ll go right back to in-person with a Youtube Live supplement. It’s just going to take a bit more time than we had hoped for. We are all eager to get back.”