For the first time, due to the coronavirus pandemic, people were able to watch and participate in town committee meetings from home.
In some cases, that meant it became possible for people — who found it difficult or impossible to participate in in-person meetings — to take part in local governance for the first time.
As the pandemic waned early this summer, many boards shifted back to in-person meetings with no remote access.
Now, with cases of covid-19 on the rise again, some boards are returning to remote meetings as activists call for remote access to become permanent. In the absence of a town-wide mandate, each committee chair has the authority to decide where their board will meet. That has created a lack of uniformity amongst the boards in terms of meeting procedures and accessibility.
The Planning Board is working to maintain Zoom access while holding in-person meetings.
“They have had trouble with it, but I do see them making attempts and trying to resolve the issues, and I really applaud them for that,” said Leslie Edwards Davis, an advocate for maintaining remote access.
Joyce Bacchiocchi, chair of the Wareham School Committee, said the issue of remote access had not been discussed by the committee yet, but added: “Certainly it is something we can discuss in the future.”
The next School Committee meeting will be held in person on Aug. 26 in the Wareham Middle School auditorium, which will accommodate more in-person attendees, Bacchiocchi said.
The next Select Board meeting, on Tuesday, Aug. 24, will also be held in person without the option for remote participation.
After that, Select Board Chair Judith Whiteside said future meetings will be fully remote, using Zoom. The switch back to fully remote Select Board meetings will continue indefinitely — until the spread of the virus slows and it is deemed safe enough to have in-person meetings again.
Davis, a Wareham resident, has advocated for remote access and participation even when meetings are held in person. She said public participation is “like the lifeblood of how a democracy works” and should be as accessible as possible.
“Every time I post something about this topic in one of the many Wareham Facebook groups, I hear from many people who private message me and say, ‘yeah, it was so easy for me to attend and participate when covid was really bad. I have bad eyesight and I can’t drive at night,’ or ‘I have mobility issues,’ or ‘I have to take care of my grandchild, and I can’t be present in the room.’”
She started a petition in an effort to demonstrate residents’ support for continuing to allow remote participation in meetings. Online, Change.org indicates the petition has garnered more than 150 signatures, though it is unclear if all the signees are Wareham residents.
Davis said allowing remote participation in town meetings is important for a variety of reasons — namely because “it’s impossible for lots of people to participate in municipal meetings at night.”
She noted that about 13 percent of Wareham residents identify as having a disability, according to 2019 U.S. Census Bureau data. She said it can be difficult for some people to travel to meetings or to hear when they’re at a meeting if their hearing is impaired in any way, for example.
“There are people who can’t leave their house at 7 o’clock on a Monday, because they’re in charge of taking care of someone,” Davis said. “But they could participate from a laptop.”
She added that some Wareham residents don’t have cars and that the town’s available public transportation “isn’t as robust as it should be.”
Davis said that programs like Zoom have additional accessibility features, including closed captioning, which was used for some remote meetings.
In the long term, Whiteside said the board heard people’s concerns and is making an effort, despite issues with manpower and equipment.
“When there’s other technology that we may be able to take advantage of that does not require additional personnel, we will continue to explore it,” she said.
Whiteside said she had met with the town’s IT department to discuss how remote access and participation might be maintained when the Select Board eventually returns to in-person meetings.
Part of that effort has come in the form of the town’s investment in Owl video conferencing equipment, which captures 360° video and audio. Whiteside said the equipment has been installed in two rooms in Town Hall — and will be coming to room 320, where the Select Board meets — soon.
“Even better, WCTV has ordered the software so that there will be closed captions on all of the town televised meetings,” Whiteside said. It might take “a month or so,” she said, because people will need to be trained to use it.
For now, Whiteside said fully remote Zoom meetings should allow access to those who can’t leave their homes in the evenings.
Moving forward, she said officials would work through challenges so that “when we can, in fact, meet in person again that remote access is available to the public.”