Divided Over In-Person Meetings

The Winthrop Town Council met on Jan. 5 for its first meeting of the new year. A motion on the agenda asked the town manager to develop a plan that would allow the body to resume in-person meetings when deemed safe to do so by health experts.

At the last council meeting of 2020, Councilor DeMarco cited that if it’s safe enough for children to return to school, then it should be safe enough to convene in person. At last week’s meeting, he added that he’d like to work toward meeting physically on Feb. 2.

Council Vice President James Letterie agreed with resuming in-person sessions as soon as possible. Councilors would always have the option of attending virtually.

“We just asked kids and staff to go back to school and they’ve done an incredible job,” he said. “It’s hard to ask a six year old to do something we’re not willing to do.”

“I feel perfectly safe,” he continued. “We should get it done.”

However, some councilors balked at the idea of having a timeline.

Councilwoman Barbara Flockhart noted that children were sent back to school because studies bore out that they were suffering academically at home.

“Council is functioning perfectly fine,” she said. “It seems unreasonable to take an additional risk to return early to in-person meetings.”

“School and council are two very different things,” said Councilor Peter Christopher. “I can’t think of anything that has hindered my participation by being on Zoom.”

He added that managing a meeting in which some attend in person and some attend on Zoom would be “logistically much more difficult to manage.”

Councilor Stephen Ruggiero said he didn’t know “what the benefit to the public would be.”

In fact, some feared that a switch away from Zoom would actually hurt the community, aside from the obvious risk of exposing them to the virus. Four callers urged council to persist with remote meetings.

“I’ve never listened to more meetings in my entire adult life since this pandemic, so I hope you continue with Zoom,” said resident Colleen Murphy.

Remote meetings have become the norm in the age of the pandemic.

“I’ve never seen so many people so active and participating in local government,” said Wendy Millar Page. “The amount of participation is because of Zoom.”

“You’re going to lose a lot of people,” said first-time caller Jenn from Precinct 6. “For people to be involved and heard, this is a much better route.”

Jenn also noted the town money that would be “wasted” on electricity, heat, internet and other resources required to host a group in a building.

“We should be looking for ways to save money, not spend money,” she said. “Whether you all sit in one building is irrelevant.”

“Going back in person right now seems foolish and pointless,” said Resident Heather Graziani, adding that there should always be a remote participation option even when in-person meetings resume.

“Having small children, there’s no way I could make it to a meeting,” she said.

Councilor Letterie admitted that the surge in public participation seen over the past year is likely due individuals becoming more accustomed to virtual meetings, and said he would like both councilors and the public to be able to attend meetings virtually.

Town Manager Austin Faison reminded the council that state-mandated limits on indoor gatherings will govern how many people can assemble for the council meetings.

When put up for a vote, council voted unanimously to approve the motion.

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