No more Zoom: Council passes new streaming policy that requires in person participation

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NORTH SMITHFIELD – After a year and a half of using technology to continue public business amid a pandemic, members of the North Smithfield Town Council are keenly aware of its limitations.

From echoes and feedback, to difficulties with video, screen sharing and other glitches, the imperfect system has, nonetheless, provided greater convenience for residents, according to Town Council President John Beauregard.

“It does make us more transparent if people have access,” Beauregard said this week as the council looked at creating a new policy for live streaming.

The council president said he believes residents should be able to reach out to councilors without having to get into their cars.

But starting immediately, Zoom, and the virtual back and forth it offers, is out, and town meetings that are streamed live will only be available on YouTube. Due to legal requirements laid out in the state’s open meetings law, the board ultimately voted to require those who wish to participate to attend in person.

“We had it a couple times where we had to stop the meeting because things weren’t working right,” Councilor Paul Vadenais of virtual meetings held over the past year. “If you want to participate, come here.” 

Unlike many boards across the state that ended live feeds once gathering limits were lifted in Rhode Island, the council had continued to offer participation via Zoom as in-person meetings resumed.

This week, Beauregard argued for maintaining the Zoom feed during open forum to allow residents to communicate. Councilors noted that the process, however, has the potential to hold up business when issues arise.

Councilor Stephen Corriveau pointed out that someone experiencing technology issues could effectively end a public hearing if virtual participation was advertised. 

“If that went down we would be in a little bit of a bind,” Corriveau said. “Personally, I don’t think that we should be the guinea pig on this.”

According to a policy ultimately passed this week, live streaming will continue for all Town Council, Zoning Board and Planning Board meetings, “whenever feasible.” But members of the public who want to participate will now have to be physically present.

“Members of the public, applicants, petitioners, experts, etc. will not be allowed to participate in an open meeting remotely by offering comment, testimony, or other remarks through virtual means,” the rules note. “If technical difficulties occur during any livestream, the open meeting will continue to proceed as scheduled.”

Carl Johnson, a resident and part-time zoning official who runs the video equipment, said that the recently-renovated council chambers were set up for streaming via YouTube. By comparison, Zoom, he noted, works best when everyone is meeting from home, not through the hybrid system where the full board attempts to communicate via a single feed.

“It’s the audio/video set up in this room,” Johnson said. “When you’re meeting individually, it’s so much easier.”

“Zoom is a great tool when everyone is in their own house,” agreed Vadenais.

Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski said that while Beauregard was trying to do a good thing by continuing Zoom, the constant echoes and feedback are distracting.

“No good deed goes unpunished,” Zwolenski said.

Vadenais noted that with YouTube, “People can watch our meetings from the comfort of their home,” without delays or echos. 

Councilor Claire O’Hara said she’s fine with the change.

“If it means that much, plan,” O’Hara said of those who want to participate. “If there was a sale someplace, they’d get there.”

Going forward, meetings will be livestreamed on the town’s YouTube page at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFgw5KxL950ZgZ_DKz8B-MQ

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