This year due to COVID-19, the state issued procedures for conducting all sorts of remote meetings, from Senate and House committees’ public hearings, to new guidelines for Town Meetings. Towns were presented with carefully prescribed procedures for conducting public town meetings remotely. The top priority was to ensure that the public could participate in the democratic process without potential exposure to the virus. How did this first run work out?
Pre-pandemic in Andover, Town Meeting has been preceded by public deliberative meetings such as School Board, Budget Committee, Highway Department, Conservation Commission, Planning Board, Select Board, Zoning Board of Adjustment, etc., whose meetings are open to the public and announced on the Town of Andover website at Andover-NH.gov, as well as on the sign in the parking lot at Town Hall. These committee meetings provide the best opportunity for public participation in discussion of the details of town government.
During the pandemic, it was the aim that little would change except that meetings could occur by Zoom. Citizens can access Zoom meetings either with a computer or with a telephone. The letter sent by the Town to every registered voter included written instructions with the phone number or web address, and it was published in the Beacon.
If you missed a meeting, you can still access the slide presentations and recordings on the Town website. The Highway Department, for example, posted the video of their public hearing on January 29.
If there is a flaw in this plan, it is that not every citizen has learned how to use their phone or computer to access meetings. Some of those who attended the first Town Meeting session, in which the budget and warrant articles were presented without public comment, felt that the info was clearly and professionally presented.
Others expressed disappointment that they were not able to ask questions or make oral comments during the presentation. Instead, the format prescribed by the state of New Hampshire recommended a second session, to which the public was invited to submit written comments via email or voice messages by phone. Many Andover folks took advantage of this opportunity.
During the second meeting, Michelle Dudek, joined at one point by Jon Champagne, did a terrific job responding to citizens’ written questions and comments. Their responses were clear and well-prepared, since they had time to consider and reflect on each question and to look up clarifying information.
The third meeting, which will occur on Tuesday, April 13, will be for citizens to vote on town officers, school board, and warrant articles. The new procedure allows secret ballot for warrant articles, which previous Town Meetings have not offered.
Personally, I felt that the new format worked well toward its purpose of public participation without danger of contagion. I thought that the meetings were very clear and informative.
On the positive side, the remote format meetings lost some of the redundancy, rancor, and free-for-all aspects that have made in-person Town Meetings sometimes stretch far into the evening.
On the other hand, I did miss the chance to meet and greet neighbors and friends, and to get a sense of the feeling of the room as issues were being discussed.
I think that interested citizens of Andover ought to participate in their self-government via public meetings. Physical disabilities or the danger of contagion from public gatherings should not dissuade any of us from participating in the democratic process that we all value as Americans.
Remote access Town Meetings, while perhaps less than perfect, are the best way we have to make that democratic process equally available.