Town researching returning to in-person meetings with a Hybrid virtual twist

On Friday, the Board of Health’s agenda includes “Virtual, Hybrid and In-Person Meetings Options for Boards/Committees”. It’s an issue that has been on many residents’ and officials’ minds.

At last week’s Select Board Meeting, member Marty Healey asked about when the Board would return to in-person meetings. Chair Lisa Braccio wanted to hear from the BOH their updated guidance on distancing at meetings. But that wasn’t the only reason for a delay.

Over the past two years, Town committees and boards have become accustomed to meeting on zoom. Some members of the public (and officials) are eager to return to in-person meetings. But Select Board members have also heard and experienced an upside to the remote meetings.

Last week, Braccio said that Southborough Access Media wasn’t yet ready to return to regularly covering in-person meetings. (Last spring, when they tried, they ran into some technical issues with equipment that stopped cooperating.) Even before the pandemic, SAM was only able to cover some key boards and committees, not most.

The remote meetings have allowed those who can’t make the meetings to catch up afterwards on YouTube. It has also made it much more convenient to participate in more meetings.

There are also downsides to zoom commenters have pointed out in the past. Not everyone is comfortable with the medium. Most residents who call in are just faceless voices. And watching a video with just members and presenters doesn’t have the same impact as seeing a room full of residents who turned out to demonstrate their concern about an issue even if many choose not to speak.

Last spring, the Select Board attempted to cobble together a hybrid approach. Each member used individual laptops, with another placed at a table facing them for use by public speakers/presenters.

Sometimes there were issues with audio feedback. To avoid that members were frequently turned off mics when not speaking. That meant occasionally someone would forget to turn one back on.* When that happens on a fully zoom meeting, members/guests are told. In an in-person meeting that can be missed. (That problem would also happen with SAM videos at times, but generally the person working the equipment panel would let the board know.) 

At last week’s Select Board Meeting, members discussed an option that they hope can more smoothly combine the best of both in person and remote meetings.

Vice Chair Chelsea Malinowski and member Sam Stivers touted the benefits of a Meeting Owl system. The camera and microphone system will capture everything going on at the table and in the room while allowing zoom participation. It also zooms in on whoever in the room is speaking. (You can see an example of how it’s used by the Stow Select Board here.)

The hope is to implement a system using two Owls in the Town House Hearing room. If successful, they could then invest in doing something similar in meeting rooms at the Senior Center and Public Safety Building.

Town Administrator Mark Purple said they believed they could fund the initial system out of this year’s Information Technology budget. At this point, they are still researching. If they decide to move forward, the item will come back to a future Select Board meeting for a vote.

*At least, that’s my recollection from the summer. I couldn’t easily find an example.

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