The legislative branch of the largest city in western Massachusetts is prepared to meet remotely during the coronavirus pandemic and comply with open meeting requirements.
Rather than taking their assigned seats at the curved desks in the Council Chambers at Springfield City Hall, councilors sat at their kitchen tables, in their home offices, or on the sofa and used their city-issued IPads and the Zoom video conferencing platform to meet.
The remote meeting on Thursday, which included members of the city administration assembled in a conference room to provide updates on the city’s response to the pandemic, was a trial run to acquaint the councilors with how the software works –to learn things like which button to push on the screen if you want to be recognized to speak, and to find where the wifi signal in their house was strongest to avoid audio drop outs and video buffering.
11 of the 13 City Councilors participated in what City Council President Justin Hurst deemed to be a successful test.
"I appreciate you being amenable to change," Hurst said to the councilors. " I know technology is not always easy to navigate."
Under the emergency declared by Gov. Charlie Baker to confront the threat posed by the coronavirus, there were temporary changes made to the state’s open meeting law. Public access to the meeting locations of public bodies is not required so long as there are other means of access available. The administration cited examples including using a phone conference line for members of the public, social media or other internet streaming services, and online meeting platforms.
Stephen Cary, the station manager of FOCUS Springfield Community Television, said City Council meetings held on Zoom will be livestreamed, shown on the local government cable channel, and recorded and archived on the FOCUS website just as in the past.
"Anybody from the public...they''ll be able to continue watching, they won't see any change," said Cary. "You won't have to have any communication to them to do anything differently."
Hurst announced on March 16th that all scheduled Council meetings would be cancelled through the month of April, but he said the council needs to be prepared to hold special meetings in the likely event that money will need to be transferred within the budget and appropriated for the city’s response to the pandemic.
"I have no intention of conducting any meetings in the month of April unless they are for an absolute emergency," said Hurst.
Government, like every business and individual, is scrambling and improvising right now, said Hurst.
"What I think it will do is change the way we operate and realize we can do more things remotely," said Hurst. "It is painful now, but I think it will be better in the long haul."
Mayor Domenic Sarno has extended until May 4 the closure to the public of all municipal buildings in Springfield including libraries and senior centers.