NORTH SMITHFIELD – For the past 14 months, “participation,” in local government came with a long list of challenges, from computer glitches, background noise and poor sound quality, to an impersonal feel that may have intimidated some who otherwise would have addressed town officials.
In North Smithfield, that ends for Town Council meetings next week, following a decision to reopen the board’s public gatherings to in-person attendance.
“It’s a council decision to open it up to the public,” said Town Council President John Beauregard. “The state opened up, so we’re allowed to do it.”
The Burrillville Town Council is still in the process of discussing the issue, according to Council President Donald Fox.
“We’ve been waiting on a little clarification on the open meetings law,” Fox told NRI NOW this week, adding that the board does plan to move back into their regular pre-pandemic council chambers at Town Hall after the budget is passed. “We’re all champing at the bit, quite honestly, at being able to open it back up to the public.”
Those in North Smithfield who enjoyed the convenience of the virtual option, and watching the meetings from the comfort of home, need not worry: according to Beauregard, online council meetings will continue in town. Resident and part-time zoning official Carl Johnson has long provided video services for the board, and will continue live-streaming post-pandemic.
“I want to give people as much access, and as many options, as I can,” Beauregard said. “Everything will stay the same, except now there’s an option to be there live.”
Beauregard said he made the decision to continue online meetings because some seem to enjoy it.
“I think it was allowing for more participation because some people might feel more comfortable,” he said.
No dedicated videographer exists, meanwhile, in Burrillville, leaving such duties to an overburdened town clerk, which Fox said makes a similar hybrid model a bit of a challenge.
“For us, it would be a financial lift to outfit the council chambers for Zoom,” Fox said
The Burrillville council president noted that audio issues have made his board’s virtual meetings difficult.
“Is it a convenience? I guess it is, but it’s also a challenge,” Fox said. “The audio quality can be a challenge, and I feel for the constituents.”
Fox said he’s often received emails and phone calls after meetings over the past year from residents who were unable to hear what took place.
“That’s not fair to them,” he said.
Fox said he’s hopeful his board will be able to resume in-person participation by the last meeting in June.
The change begins next week, meanwhile, in North Smithfield, at a special meeting on Monday, June 7, when the agenda includes a public hearing on the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Comments from those attending in person will be taken first, before feedback is allowed from the virtual audience through the now customary, “raise hand,” function. A link to attend has been published on the meeting agenda.
The leaders from both towns say their anxious to have the general public back in attendance.
“I like the interaction,” Beauregard said. “It’s just easier to interact with people, with body language and everything. I would much rather see faces in the audience than in the screen.”
Fox said he also, “much prefers,” to be in person.
“Part of local government is the opportunity to have the constituents right in the room with you, and to hear their input and get their opinions,” he said.
As with most settings across the state, those who are not fully vaccinated, and who have not built up antibodies after having COVID-19, are asked to wear masks if they attend the North Smithfield meeting, to be held in the council chambers at 83 Greene St.
“Everybody will have an opportunity to be heard,” Beauregard said.