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With City Hall open, New London transitions back to in-person meetings

New London — It’s been more than a year since the city’s various boards and commissions held in-person meetings.

The transition back has started in the city with a handful of committees welcoming back the public. More are expected to follow in the coming weeks.

Mayor Michael Passero said this week that he is encouraging boards and commissions to conduct in-person meetings going forward. While the state will allow municipalities to continue remote meetings through April 30, 2022, Passero said he would like to see the transition to in-person start sooner rather than later.

Four of the seven sitting City Council members have never even attended a meeting in City Hall’s Council Chambers. That’s because meetings moved into the Senior Center shortly after the newly elected councilors took office in January 2019, as renovations had started at City Hall at that time. The COVID-19 pandemic struck not too long after and forced the council and other commissions to go remote. 

City Hall only recently reopened to the public with security-related restrictions in place because of ongoing renovations, most notably the construction of a new vault in the city clerk’s office. But renovations in the Council Chambers are completed and it now contains new audio and video equipment for streaming council meetings.

Some of the equipment is likely to be used for the first time on Thursday during an in-person meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission. While that commission doesn’t stream meetings, it has access to large screen monitors in the chambers that could be used for visual presentations from applicants.

The City Council was the only board or committee to stream meetings before the pandemic. Residents can watch remotely but cannot interact when the meeting is streamed. Passero said the new equipment offers the opportunity to have other meetings streamed, as well.

Passero said he does not foresee the city offering a hybrid mix of remote and in-person meetings. “As a practical matter, I don’t see it as workable at the moment. We’re not there technologically.”

He also said he was “ambivalent as to whether it's good public policy.”

Some residents, however, say the ease of remote access has not only boosted public participation but offered access to some people who otherwise might not attend in person. Frida Berrigan, a local activist who is a regular at City Council meetings, said the remote access was a good way to engage, especially for the elderly or parents of young children, who can’t always make the drive to a meeting venue.

She credited the city for a smooth transition to remote meetings but also is excited about the prospect of speaking to city officials in person.

“You lose that listening piece where you sort of have to believe people are listening to you rather than getting those visual cues when you are in the same room,” she said.

Still, she said the city should consider keeping remote access an option. “It seems sort of a shame to go back to the way things were,” she said. “We saw a dynamism during the pandemic, new voices who haven’t been part of the conversation.”

City Council President Efrain Dominguez said the council has discussed the issue and is likely to return to in-person meetings early in September. He agrees that the virtual meetings, despite a few technical glitches, seemed to have boosted public participation.

“I feel like it’s normal now. People have grown accustomed to it. People are in the comfort of their own homes not only streaming but interacting,” he said. “It’s changed the dynamic.”

He said, however, that the city deciding to offer a hybrid mix could prove to be burdensome in light of recent legal opinions that show the city could have to provide a space and equipment to members of the public who request it.

g.smith@theday.com

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