Muncipalities grapple with best practices for public meetings during pandemic and beyond

ALISON GRILLO For The Press of Atlantic City, January 31, 2021     

     Two neighboring beach towns in Cape May County — Avalon and Stone Harbor — take divergent approaches to the technology that can make public meetings accessible online.  They offer a glimpse into how jurisdictions are grappling with the challenges to democracy in a pandemic.

     In Avalon, the mayor and council offer teleconferencing (without video) when they meet twice a month.

     During a meeting Wednesday, content was frequently inaudible. And when a visiting expert gave a presentation with visual aids, they were seen only by those attending in the council chamber. One speaker, with a manner more formal and lawyerly than anyone else, was likely the borough attorney, but he did not identify himself for those listening to the meeting. Others who spoke did not identify themselves either, although after this oversight was noted, one of the two council members who sounded female apologized.

     The mayor and council discussed possible upgrades to virtual technology, one man with a good clear voice speaking enthusiastically about Zoom and other options. He requested someone (most likely the borough administrator) prepare a report. The man making this request was later identified as Council President John McCorristin. His comments came in the wake of a recent borough Planning and Zoning Board meeting during which residents experienced frustrations with a teleconferencing system.

     Wednesday’s teleconferenced council meeting was unacceptable to resident Martha Wright, who would have preferred to attend in person, but who was self-quarantined after a business trip to Atlanta.

     “What do I get for being a good citizen? I hear a lot of mumbo jumbo and not see a gosh-darn thing. That stinks,” said Wright, who lives on Seventh Street.

     In a telephone interview after the meeting, Scott Wahl, the borough’s administrator and public information officer, said he had never before received a complaint regarding sound.

Wahl said the average in-person attendance over many months has not exceeded four people — well within social distancing requirements, and a reflection of, he said, Avalon residents’ satisfaction in how their government was serving the community.

     Wahl attributed this satisfaction to the borough’s robust public information system, including two full-color newsletters per year; other direct mailings on borough services, regulations and recreational opportunities; an emergency management website; and a detailed, well-equipped general website where residents can email questions, comments and complaints.

     “And you get an immediate response,” Wahl said. “Those emails go directly to me, the information officer.” He recalled sending thousands of emails during the earlier months of the pandemic.

     Travis Marshall, of 21st Street, was the one resident who attended Wednesday’s meeting, and he agreed with Wright.

     “I think Avalon can do better than this,” he said.

As an example, he turned the governing body’s attention immediately to the south — to Stone Harbor.

     In this neighboring Seven Mile Beach borough, officials offer something Borough Administrator Bob Smith termed “cutting edge” and “masterfully produced.” Through Zoom, with a camera that pans to whoever is speaking, and other equipment, virtual attendees can better watch and participate in the deliberations, Smith said.

     The broadcast is directed by someone Mayor Judy Davies-Dunhour described as “the great and all-powerful Oz behind the curtain.” He is Martin Fiedler, owner and production supervisor of Just Right TV Productions LLC of Mays Landing.

     In a room next to the council chamber, Fiedler directs the Zoom broadcast with the help of video screens and a control board. The borough pays him $300 per meeting, said Smith. The meetings are open to in-person attendance, within social distancing limits.

Davies-Dunhour credits Fiedler with increasing attendance at council meetings, when in-person and virtual attendees are combined.

     “We get good feedback from our stakeholders and constituents,” said Davies-Dunhour. “It is really pulling us through the pandemic.”

     Going forward, “I would like to see us continue to broadcast in this fashion,” Davies-Dunhour said

     With a “vast majority” of its taxpayers being second homeowners, videoconferencing helps summer residents stay in touch, said the mayor, who expects the usual in-person crowd to start showing up again once the pandemic is over.

     Prior to the current “hybrid” of an in-person meeting with professional video, “We were doing strictly a Zoom format,” said Davies-Dunhour. “We were in separate rooms ... it made for an awkward meeting.”

     She added, “When you’re not in the council room and seated next to your colleagues, that can be detrimental to the discussion.”

     Lying somewhere between Avalon’s teleconferencing and Stone Harbor’s television productions is Upper Township, which continues to offer residents the chance to view meetings and make comments through Zoom.

     Municipal Engineer Paul Dietrich, who manages the remotely held meetings, said the township has spent nearly $15,000 on audio/visual equipment for a planned teleconferencing upgrade. The enhancement would be in conjunction with the Township Committee again meeting in its regular space. In-person admission of the public would depend on an easing of New Jersey’s current restrictions on indoor gatherings, Dietrich said.

     In Ocean County, Lacey Township Committee continues to meet in person — without tele- or videoconferencing. It met in person “even during the most severe of the lockdowns,” Committeemen Steven Kennis said in an email.

     “Most municipalities do not have the technical capability to host virtual meetings adequately nor do they have the funds to support upgrades,” he wrote.

     Foreseeing that “virtual meetings are here to stay in some form,” Kennis nonetheless wrote, “most people require and expect real life interactions, especially from their elected officials. Nuance and non-verbal cues are missing from virtual meetings and I think both of those things are important to interpret during a public discussion.”

     Stone Harbor’s mayor, though her town has embraced videoconferencing more readily than other jurisdictions, would seem to agree with Kennis. Davies-Dunhour is wary of what might happen post-COVID: busy borough officials and consultants feeling an insufficient need to attend meetings in person, and requesting they be allowed to sit in virtually, now and then and all too frequently.

     “I would prefer that not be an option post-COVID,” she said. “I would prefer that we are all in the same room.”