Portland and other communities across the state are returning to in-person public meetings in the coming weeks as pandemic emergency orders expire and virtual meetings are no longer allowed.

And local officials are approaching their first face-to-face gatherings with a mix of uncertainty, excitement and, in some cases, trepidation.

Things won’t necessarily be the same as before the pandemic.

Many communities, including Maine’s largest city, are looking to take advantage of a new state law that allows public officials to use videoconferencing technology, or the telephone, to attend meetings and cast votes under certain circumstances. And many also are planning to accept public comments through digital platforms such as Zoom even when the public officials meet in-person, citing an increase in public participation during the pandemic.

The fact that in-person meetings are returning  as COVID-19 case numbers begin to rise again and as a new, highly contagious delta variant spreads across the nation, some officials are approaching a return to in-person meetings with trepidation. Municipal officials are still discussing mask policies and looking for ways to ensure that meeting rooms do not become too crowded with members of the public.

During the pandemic, Gov. Janet Mills issued an executive order allowing public bodies to conduct meetings remotely. Her order expired on June 30, but municipalities were allowed to continue meeting remotely throughout July.

In the meantime, the Legislature approved a new law that would allow public bodies to meet remotely under certain circumstances, but not as a matter of routine. To meet remotely, each elected body must adopt a policy and that policy must “provide that members of the body are expected to be physically present for public proceedings except when being physically present is not practicable.”

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder advocated for the change in state law to allow remote meetings because it made it easier for residents to participate in public meetings by eliminating barriers such as child care and transportation. She said the city has seen an increase in participation with virtual meetings. However, she would have liked to have seen more flexibility built into the state law, allowing elected bodies to meet remotely more easily.

“I feel like we’re just getting into it and realize just how complicated this is,” Snyder said before the council voted Monday to adopt its policy. “If I had it my way, we would have an easier button to push in terms of saying, ‘Let’s use remote (meetings).’ But we really don’t even have that option after July 30.”

FOUR CRITERIA IN STATE LAW

Public bodies, or individual members, may only meet remotely under these circumstances: existence of an emergency or urgent issue that requires the public body to meet by remote methods; illness or other physical condition or temporary absence presenting significant difficulties to travel; statewide bodies with attendees that have to travel far distances to be in-person; and an area of jurisdiction that includes geographic characteristics that impede or slow travel, such as an island not connected by bridges. 

No public proceeding can be conducted by text-only means, such as email, text messages or online chat services.

When any member of a public body attends a meeting remotely, members of the public also must be allowed to attend and offer public comment remotely as well. The law does not require municipalities to allow remote public participation when all members are meeting in person, although many communities are doing that voluntarily as long it it remains technically feasible.

Most communities, including Portland, are basing their policies on a template drafted by the Maine Municipal Association, which advocates for towns and cities in Augusta.

MMA spokesman Eric Conrad said many of the association’s 483 member municipalities expressed interest in the model policy, but he did not know how many planned to adopt it. He expects that a “good number” of the communities will allow for remote participation by the public, even if the elected officials are all meeting in-person.

“The reason, of course, is that municipal leaders saw public participation increase during the pandemic-restriction months, because things went remote,” Conrad said. “That was a positive, unintended consequence of what otherwise was, and still is, a very difficult situation. So towns and cities want to keep people who would rather watch remotely engaged. Even members of the Maine media told us they were able to observe more meetings due to the remote tools that went into use.”

The Press Herald reached out to a dozen communities, from Bangor to Biddeford. Most were developing a policy, or already had adopted one, and planned to accept public comment remotely, even when elected officials meet in-person.

AUBURN IS AN EXCEPTION

One exception was the city of Auburn, which has been meeting in person for over a year.

Mayor Jason Levesque said he and councilors felt it was important to continue meeting in-person, since other workers, including first responders such as police, fire and EMS, were reporting to work in person. He said city officials have no plans to adopt a remote meeting policy.

“Our responsibility is to set policy and be leaders for the city of Auburn,” Levesque said. “If our first responders, teachers and critical workers in the private sector need to show up for work the least we can do is show up for work as well.”

Levesque said the city has been following state laws and guidelines, including the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance on mask wearing. Masks are not required, but strongly encouraged for people who are not vaccinated. So far, there have been few issues, he said, with a couple councilors and some members of the public continuing to wear masks.

“It’s been better than fine – it’s one of the reasons Auburn has done so well during this pandemic, from a social standpoint to an economic standpoint and just the vibrancy of our city,” he said. “Not a small part of that is the way the leadership of the city has been handling the COVID-19 in a very pragmatic way.”

Further south, the Saco City Council resumed its in-person meetings in the City Hall auditorium on July 12 and community members must attend the meeting to participate.

City Council meetings are held in the large City Hall auditorium, which allows room to space out chairs, said Emily Roy, spokeswoman for the city. Masks are not required.

In the lakes region, Windham also has returned to in-person meetings, but is in no hurry to discuss a remote meeting policy. Town Manager Barry Tibbetts said the council won’t take up the issue until this fall.

TECHNOLOGY A CHALLENGE

Along the coast, the Cape Elizabeth Town Council is still hammering out a remote meeting policy and deciding which bodies it will apply to, according to Town Manager Matthew Sturgis.

“Based on those discussions, there may be greater technology needs if additional meeting rooms need to be enabled to have hybrid meetings,” Sturgis said. “Currently, I have our IT staff working on cost estimates, deliverable dates for equipment, installation and the other details to enable hybrid meetings.”

Portland’s policy, adopted on Monday, applies to the City Council and its subcommittees. Corporation Counsel Danielle West, the attorney, said other boards and committees, such as the planning board, would need to adopt their own policies to allow remote participation.

Portland councilors were initially eager to resume in-person meetings. But that eagerness waned when they learned that they could not prohibit members of the public from attending in-person.

Portland’s council chambers is often filled, with people sitting and standing shoulder to shoulder, an environment that was sometimes uncomfortable even before the pandemic. And some councilors expressed concerns about returning in light of the pandemic and rising case numbers.

“I remember how crowded council chambers gets and you can’t get out of that room without rubbing against people and that concerns me,” Councilor Belinda Ray said. “If we can’t limit the crowd that’s in that area, I’m not that excited to get back to meetings in person.”

A city spokesperson said council chambers has a capacity of 49 people downstairs and 49 people upstairs because of fire codes, which the city attorney said have never been enforced. Those capacity limits will now be enforced because of the fire codes and the need for extra equipment to allow for zoom participation, a spokeswoman said. There will be overflow space in Room 209 at City Hall when the audience is too large for the chambers.

Then, there’s the issue of masks.

MASKING AN ISSUE

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings has expressed concerns about the rising case counts and the more contagious delta variant. “We’re seeing the numbers spiking again. We have to be careful. Even though we don’t have the emergency proclamation, we still can require certain things like masks,” he said.

Portland officials met Friday to discuss the city’s mask policy. Starting in August, the city will require masks in City Hall only for unvaccinated people, and the same policy will apply at City Council meetings, said Jessica Grondin, director of communications. The city will rely on citizens to follow the mandate and won’t ask for proof.

Other communities indicated they were following guidance from the Maine CDC, which does not require masks, but strongly encourages mask-wearing by people who have not been vaccinated.

The Falmouth Town Council will hold its first in-person meeting since the pandemic began on Monday and is expected to adopt a remote meeting policy that would continue allowing the public to participate remotely.

Council Chairwoman Amy Kuhn said that councilors are “very excited” about returning to council chambers. She said none of the councilors has expressed concerns about meeting in-person, since council meetings don’t typically draw large crowds.

Kuhn said if the council has a hot item, they would consider moving the meeting to a larger venue.

“I’m more concerned about my technical finesse than the public health components,” Kuhn said of having to toggle between in-person and remote public comment. “We’re going to be learning as we go.”

RENEWED ENERGY IN BIDDEFORD

In Biddeford, the City Council and other committees began meeting in-person in June, but the city continued to show meetings on Zoom to allow residents to participate remotely. Mayor Alan Casavant said the return to in-person meetings has worked out well.

“I think people were relieved to be back doing it live,” he said. “There is a renewed sense of energy. People feed off each other. The councilors are more relaxed, more engaged and wittier in a live setting.”

On Tuesday, the Biddeford council gave initial approval to a remote participation policy that applies to all municipal committee, boards and commissions. While continuing remote participation for members of the public, it requires all councilors or committee members to attend meetings in-person, except for under the four circumstances outlined in the new state law.

The two councilors who voted against the policy expressed reservations about allowing remote participation, especially for board members, except under extreme circumstances.

“I think if you want to be noted, you have to show up,” said Councilor Marc Lessard, who voted against the policy.

Councilor Amy Clearwater supports continued remote access because people have childcare needs, work or other commitments that prevent them from attending meetings at city hall.

“I think it makes engagement a lot easier. Were we to decline to participate in the digital world, I think it would keep government behind and keep us from being a normal part of life,” she said.

Bangor is still drafting its policy for the council to consider. City Manager Cathy Conlow expects the policy would allow remote participation from the public.

“I don’t know that we saw an increase (in participation) per-se, but we didn’t see a decrease,” Conlow said. “Our public comments are generally issue driven so when there are big issues, we had an increase. We did have more folks from outside Bangor commenting, including California.”

The Scarborough Town Council approved a remote meeting policy on Wednesday that allows remote public participation.

“Through this forced experiment with remote (meetings), we really appreciated and the public appreciated their ability connect in and participate in those public proceedings,” Town Manager Tom Hall said. “We did put the caveat that there are technical glitches and other circumstances that may not allow that. But our full intention is when possible we will allow the public to participate remotely.”

Staff Writer Gillian Graham contributed to this story

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