The Biddeford City Council meeting started as usual with the city clerk’s roll call and a welcome from the mayor.

But this was unlike any meeting the council has had before.

From their living rooms and kitchens, elected officials and city staff logged onto Zoom to connect by video conference Thursday evening for their first council meeting since Gov. Janet Mills declared a state of civil emergency and signed an emergency law that allows remote municipal meetings. Their faces appeared in a gallery view reminiscent of the iconic “Brady Bunch” show intro.

Meetings held via Zoom or similar videoconferencing services are becoming the new normal as town and cities across the state adjust to doing necessary municipal business in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Portland’s City Council will use the technology to meet Monday night, when it’s expected to decide whether to extend the city’s stay-at-home order.

As municipal officials scramble to make the transition to virtual meetings, they also have to be cognizant of public access laws. City officials say they are using technology to connect elected leaders, but also need to make sure the public can watch and participate in meetings just as they would if they showed up at City Hall.

Concerns about public access at municipal meetings has increased amid emergency responses to the pandemic. That came to light earlier this month in Waterville, where a city council subcommittee gathered in person and illegally met in secret by not allowing public access to its deliberations. Some municipalities have temporarily suspended committee and commission meetings until they can ensure the public will be able to participate in public hearings.

“The key for me is everything still has to be public and transparent. Everyone has to have the same access to it now that they did two months ago,” said York Town Manager Stephen Burns.

On March 15, Mills declared a civil emergency in Maine because of the coronavirus. Three days later, she issued an executive order banning gatherings of more than 10 people and signed into law emergency legislation to address public health, safety and welfare during the public health emergency.

That law allows towns to conduct public meetings through “telephonic, video, electronic or other similar means of remote participation.” Public notice is required and the notice must include the method by which the public can attend. All participating board members must be able to hear and speak with all other board members and they all must be able to be heard by the audience. Additionally, municipalities must also allow public participation and all votes must be taken by roll call.

Those provisions for nontraditional meetings are repealed 30 days after the state of emergency is terminated. They currently extend through May 14, but may be extended if Mills continues the state of civil emergency.

In guidance provided to towns on the temporary provisions, the Maine Municipal Association advises them to consider postponing nonessential meetings and agenda items, and limiting business to items necessary to continue municipal operations. It also suggests town officials test equipment and technology well before the meeting to minimize disruption to public access and board operations.

“Under state law, the public does not generally have a right to participate in board or committee meetings unless the board has allowed public comment or local rules require. However, during the COVID-19 related state of emergency, board should consider taking extra steps to allow public involvement. For example, board could provide methods for citizens to submit comments on agenda items before or after the meeting via email, phone, mail or other means,” MMA’s legal services department wrote in the advisory.

Sigmund Schutz, a First Amendment attorney with PretiFlaherty who represents MaineToday Media, which includes the Portland Press Herald, said the Freedom of Access Act “gives you the right to attend, but not necessarily to be heard at public meetings.” However, certain types of proceedings – including Planning Board decisions – must have input from the public.

“For other proceedings it would be a shame if they changed normal practices and eliminate public comment,” he said.

Biddeford city staff are still working through the logistics of having the public comment during meetings held through Zoom, said City Manager Jim Bennett. On Tuesday, the City Council will consider temporarily suspending its rules that allow public comment at the end of meetings, but Bennett said that could change as the city figures out the best way to allow the public to interact during meetings.

For now, Biddeford City Council meetings will be held on Zoom and aired simultaneously on local public access and on the city website. All meetings will be recorded and archived on the city website in the same way meetings are normally saved.

Bennett said the city’s priority was getting the council up and running with virtual meetings before focusing on doing the same with the planning board and other committees that have decision-making authority. Advisory committees and commissions have the lowest priority.

“The feedback we’ve gotten from the council and people who watched the (first) meeting was that it was surprisingly good,” Bennett said. “The council felt OK about it and the public didn’t find it difficult to watch.”

Bennett said city staff is considering how to incorporate public comment into live meetings, but are aware of issues municipalities in other states have had with people hacking into the meeting or doing inappropriate things. That became an issue last Friday in Falmouth when the town council met via Zoom to discuss declaring a local civil emergency.

“Unfortunately, the meeting ended abruptly due to the inappropriate and lewd behavior of one individual (whose) actions were viewed by several of the meeting participants. Fortunately, this behavior was not captured on the live stream,” town officials wrote in an update to the community. “We apologize for this incident and will explore ways to prevent such an occurrence from happening in the future.”

The Portland City Council will hold its first virtual meeting Monday night, during which the council will consider renewing a state of emergency and requirement to stay at home. That meeting will be held through Zoom and residents will be able to participate in public comment, said city spokesperson Jessica Grondin.

Grondin said the ability to take public comment was the biggest requirement as city staff decided which format to use. Staff is still figuring out how to show the meetings through Town Hall Streams and on Facebook live. The city has not yet made a decision about whether committee meetings will be held remotely, she said.

“We’re still in that crisis mode of responding to what’s going on,” Grondin said. “If things start to get back to normal, we’ll see if we can conduct committee meetings remotely.”

Starting Wednesday, all South Portland municipal meetings will be held via Zoom, but there are unlikely to be many virtual council meetings in the short term. Residents who want to comment during meetings will be able to do so, said City Manager Scott Morelli.

“Right now the mayor is hesitant to meet over Zoom because it’s not as easy for people to show up to hear and see what is going on,” Morelli said.

South Portland City Council meetings will only be held virtually if there are emergency situations that can’t wait for the panel the meet in person, Morelli said. The council met twice using Zoom to deal with issues related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“There were a few hiccups along the way, but the public was able to participate and councilors could see and hear everyone,” he said. “It’s not ideal for public meetings, but in a pinch it’s working for us.”

Burns, the York town manager, said the board of selectmen is planning to meet every week to get out information about town government and the coronavirus response, but the town has temporarily put on hold other types of meetings. When selectmen meet Monday for their first virtual meeting, it will be streamed online and on public access, though resolution may be low.

The town has not yet integrated a way to take live public comment, so it has postponed consideration of a business license and other proceedings that will require public comment, including planning board and zoning board of appeals business. Residents can email selectmen at [email protected] to submit public comments on board business.

“We’re learning on the fly,” Burns said. “It seems like we really haven’t gotten it down to a science yet, but we’re getting there.”


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