State government has taken a number of steps to help Massachusetts municipalities contend with the ongoing COVID-19 health emergency. One of the first actions taken was an executive order from Governor Charlie Baker to suspend certain provisions of the state's Open Meeting Law. This will allow public bodies (including Community Preservation Committees) to carry on their work.
The state's Open Meeting Law states that public bodies are required to hold their meetings in a location open and physically accessible to the public. Due to the health risks that this poses right now, the Governor's order suspends this requirement and allows committee members to meet remotely. The order has the following stipulation:
"provided that the public body makes provision to ensure public access to the deliberations of the public body for interested members of the public through adequate, alternative means."
So what are "adequate, alternative means"? According to a summary by the Massachusetts Municipal Association, committees can maintain public access to meetings through telephone or internet based conferencing - as long as the public is able to follow the proceedings in real time. If a committee, despite best efforts, is unable to have the public follow along in real time, they must instead post on its municipal website a full and complete transcript, recording, or other comprehensive record of the proceeding.
Fall River's CPC is One of the First to Have an Online Meeting
The City of Fall River is a great example of how one Community Preservation Committee is making the transition to holding their meetings online while still maintaining access to the public. On March 30th, the Fall River CPC held their regular meeting through an web-based meeting application called Zoom.
Leading up to the meeting, the Fall River CPC followed all of the guidelines set by the Governor and the Attorney General by posting the agenda ahead of time on the city's website and social media accounts, as well as allowing citizens to email statements or questions that would be read by the committee chair at the beginning of the meeting. Fall River Government Television (FRGTV), the local cable access channel, provided planning and technical support to help the CPC conduct the meeting.
To allow public accessibility, the meeting was streamed in real time on Facebook Live, and an audience of between 10-20 members of the public were tuned in throughout. Viewers even had the ability to turn on closed captioning, which translated the CPC's deliberations into text on the screen. FRGTV recorded the meeting, and it is now available on their Youtube channel.
The CPC had a full agenda, including a review of 16 CPA project applications. One by one the CPC talked about the applications, asked questions, and set the parameters for a vote at their next meeting. The meeting went almost two hours, and the CPC was extremely pleased with the outcome.
According to CPC Chair Jimmy Souza and Administrator Sandy Dennis, the Fall River City Council is now considering adopting a similar procedure for their own meetings based on what the CPC was able to accomplish.
Many cities and towns are in the process of setting up a system to conduct online meetings. So if your CPC needs to meet, contact the staff at your City or Town Hall and ask for their help in facilitating a meeting.