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Spfld City Council to resume in-person meetings; virtual participation to remain (The Republican)

Read the original article on MassLive from reporter Patrick Johnson here.

SPRINGFIELD - For the first time in more than two years since the start of the pandemic, the Springfield City Council on Monday night plans an in-person meeting — mostly anyway.

With the state’s emergency expansion of the Open Meeting Law expiring Friday, the council intends to conduct its business via a hybrid format that is partially in-person and partially remote.

Beginning Monday and going forward, councilors will be expected to attend meetings in person, but meetings will retain a virtual component where councilors, city officials or anyone else with business before the council may tune in and participate if they are unable to make it in person, according to Council President Jesse Lederman.

Focus Springfield will still telecast the meetings for members of the public who wish to watch but not otherwise participate.

Lederman on Thursday briefed members of the council’s General Government Committee on his proposed remote-participation policy that is also on Monday’s agenda.

“I believe it is important for us to return to council chambers,” he said. “I think it is really important that the business of the City Council takes place in the City Council Chambers.”

The council has met in person once since the pandemic started in March 2020. That one time was the organization meeting in January at the start of this term.

Lederman noted that the School Committee has been conducting in-person meetings for some time, and all city employees are back at work.

At the start of the pandemic, the legislature and governor agreed to an emergency expansion of the Open Meeting Law to allow remote meetings. That expansion expired on Friday.

The House and Senate have each approved bills to extend the expansion into next year. But as the bills differed on the expiration date, both the House and Senate will have to reconcile the difference.

Lederman said he was planning to return to in-person meetings by the end of August, but the expiration of the state’s emergency order necessitated moving things up.

Under his policy, a majority of seven of the 13 councilors would have to be physically present for the meeting, including either Lederman or Vice President Melvin Edwards.

The president needs to attend to run the meeting, and direct the actual and virtual halves of the discussion. Lederman said he is unable to attend, then Edwards would become the presiding officer.

The one hitch for Monday is that council chambers will not be ready in time for the meeting. The room needs to be fitted with an interactive television screen and other equipment that allows people in chambers to see and interact with the people who are turned in remotely.

Because it is not ready, the first meeting back will be held in Room 205, a hearing room that has all the equipment needed for a remote meeting.

Room 205 is smaller than the council chambers and councilors and any in-person attendees will have to wear masks, he said.

Lederman said that councilors will be expected to attend in person, but the policy allows for exceptions in instances where physical attendance is too difficult. These include illness or a temporary injury, an emergency, military service, or any “significant geographic distance due to unforeseen circumstances.”

“The hope is that if a person can attend in person, then they are expected to attend,” he said.

For Monday’s meeting, Lederman said between two and three councilors have already indicated they cannot make it and wish to participate remotely.

For the council’s committee meetings, the same hybrid approach is planned. Unless the legislature agrees to extend the Open Meeting Law expansion, all committee meetings will need to have a chair and at least one other committee member present at the location listed on the meeting notice. Other participants could take part remotely.

Lederman said that for committee meetings over the last two years, “virtual meetings allowed a lot of discussions that have been beneficial.”

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