On March 9, Andover held the first session of its first-ever virtual Town Meeting. The second virtual session was held on March 16, with the voting session scheduled to be held on Tuesday, April 13. The State of New Hampshire passed a bill allowing the change from the standard format of Town Meetings due to safety concerns about public gatherings related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The Beacon asked a wide range of Andover residents to send us their impressions about this new Town Meeting format. Following are the responses we received in time to be included in this issue. In their own words:
Marjorie Roy, Andover Town Administrator
There were 85 for the first session and 57 for the second. It’s difficult to know exactly how many viewers there were because some couples/households viewed together on the same device.
We have had quite a few people tell us that the warrant was clear and they knew how they would vote after reading it, so they didn’t tune in.
When we have an in-person meeting, the number of voters dwindles as the evening goes on, and the lower number of viewers at the second session reminded me of that. After hearing the presentation at the first session, people had an understanding of what was presented, and they didn’t all tune in for the second session.
Les Fenton, Andover resident
My reaction to the virtual Town Meeting was twofold:
The lack of any way for townspeople to offer amendments and ask for real-time clarifications based on officials’ statements was very frustrating. Having attended well over 40 Town Meetings over the years, I think I have a good feel for the spirit and intent of our meeting. This new dynamic really defeated the customary give and take on the warrant discussion. It likely will contribute to negative votes on warrant articles owing to incomplete understanding.
I was struck by the lack of participation. The most Zoom participants shown in either meeting was around 60. Any given Town Meeting has at least 100 to 150 voters, and often significantly more, in attendance. Those with no access to technology or who lack tech savvy skill or simply eschew tech were shut out. Notification to residents and participation depended on technology, which disenfranchised a whole cohort of voters.
I feel that delaying the meeting until more vaccinations had been administered and holding it outdoors on a Saturday in the parking lot would have served the town much better.
I’ll bet there will be decreased voter turnout for the April vote and that vote will be more negative in nature.
Paul Currier, Deputy Moderator
I moderated the first Town Meeting, on March 9. From my point of view as part of the team that put on the virtual meeting, I think it went well. The meeting went as planned, and we had pretty good online attendance.
Jeffery Dickinson, Andover resident
My first and lasting impression: I truly hope this is the only time we will have to do the Town Meeting in this manner.
Shades of being an SB2 town [like Danbury and Sunapee, in which the deliberative session and the voting take place on separate days – Editor]. Not something I would support.
Unclear how debate and real discussion can take place. Example: how are amendments to amendments going to be handled? Or is there just no way for that to happen this year?
Town officials are making a good effort, and I understand they are not entirely responsible for this format being used. However, the actual presentation was a bit crude and amateurish (i.e. people getting up and changing seats to get in front of the single camera). Also, why are we watching “Marj’s”? Can’t the Town organize itself to have a properly-listed video feed?
Interesting to see how the next meeting plays out. Sending written/voice messages to the Town may be the only practical solution, given the path chosen, but how are we assured that all questions/comments are going to be made public?
Is the recording of this presentation already available online, and if so, is the full participants list provided?
On the whole, a rather undemocratic exercise as access is limited and discussion stilted (see my first point above).
Lee Wells, Town Moderator
I think it worked very well, I found it easy to join the Zoom meetings, and it was easy to hear and understand everyone. Our moderator for the second meeting, the Select Board – especially Michelle Dudek – did a great job.
Jon Champagne and those working behind the scenes – Bonnie Wesley, Marj Roy, and (I believe) Doug Phelps – put in a great deal of good work to pull it off. There are probably others whose efforts I am unaware of and should receive our thanks.
The real advantage to this method was that it gave us time: time to thoughtfully and deliberately construct our comments and questions, and time for the Select Board members and Town officers to do the necessary research to answer those questions accurately and thoughtfully. Gone was the repetition and the occasional contentiousness, as well as the difficulty and challenges of asking and answering questions on the spot.
I often felt that Town Meetings were delayed unnecessarily by people making the same point over and over again and by various Town officials needing time to look up the actual figures, figuring out who would answer the question, etc.
Another advantage with this year’s system is that when we vote on Tuesday, April 13, we will be voting by secret ballot. No more Yeas and Nays or a show of hands along with furtive looks to see how others are voting. People will be voting without their friends and neighbors watching (and perhaps judging).
Of course, I missed the social aspect of Town Meeting, and I know that many organizations really miss the opportunity to set up tables during the day to inform residents about what they do and provide refreshments via donation during the meeting itself.
So, are there advantages to this year’s system that we might want to keep?
Pecco and Gail Beaufays, East Andover residents
First of all, I think Michelle Dudek did an excellent job running the second meeting. She was extremely well prepared and knowledgeable about the issues.
The format is obviously very informative, however impersonal. The highest number of participants registered was 57, which demonstrates the challenge of using an internet-based platform for a town meeting.
I believe that residents in a small village like ours see Town Meeting as a social event and while seeing friends and seen by friends benefitting from the information presented.
Due to COVID I attend four to five business Zoom or Google meetings a week. In my opinion these formats fit well with straight business meetings or family get-togethers, but I hope that as soon as the general situation allows us to get together, town meetings in Andover will be held in person again.
Obviously, the current situation demands all precautions we can arrange for, but I am looking forward to seeing all our wonderful neighbors soon again in person. It is, for us as humans, important not to lose the in-person contact with each other.
Jane Slayton, Andover resident
I attended both Zoom sessions of the Andover Town Meeting. I appreciate the work the selectmen and Town administration put forth to make it happen.
I think delaying the meeting until late spring would have been difficult for Town business. I think it was a practical option for this year. The Town meeting materials were promptly made available after both Zoom sessions. The Town Report and warrant articles were made available prior to the Zoom sessions.
I did not submit questions or comments, but I did appreciate reading/hearing those submitted from others. I definitely missed the traditional Town Meeting Day and Town Meeting. It is one of the special days in our community. I think we will appreciate our democratic process more than ever in March 2022.
Jon and Vicky Mishcon, Andover residents
The audio and visual aspects of the presentation in both sessions were clear and easy to follow.
The reading and printed presentations of the comments and questions in the second session were very helpful, as it allowed us to clearly hear and see the details in the comments/questions, such as references to specific RSAs and equipment specs.
Responses to the comments and questions were clearly well-researched and concise, something that is at times difficult to achieve at a live Town Meeting. The Select Board tries to anticipate every question that might come up at Town Meeting, but sometimes the information requested is not immediately available.
The best part about the Zoom Town Meeting was having the Town Warrant presented without interruption and distractions. Each meeting ended before 9 PM, so we were not tempted to leave early due to burn out or exhaustion.
We also appreciated a break from the usual disruptions and conflict, making for a more civil experience.
The obvious challenge to the Zoom procedure is the inability to make amendments to the articles, which is a very important function of the legislative body (the voters) during a live Town Meeting. Overall, though, I think it is an acceptable alternative in this time of COVID.
One last comment: Twenty people showed up at the live School District Meeting on March 1 to vote on a $6 million-plus budget. There was seating for approximately 74 people, following distancing guidelines. Would more people have been involved had it been on Zoom?
There were about 85 people logged into the first Town Meeting Zoom.