OTIS — Now, they’re ready for a real crowd.
After having a Select Board session max out on Zoom capacity in late January, spurring an Open Meeting Law complaint, officials in Otis upgraded their account.
When another large group of Otis residents joined a virtual board meeting Tuesday — most of them were opposed to a cell tower under consideration — they didn’t face the same barrier. But, many left frustrated anyway, because the issue of a proposed tower on town property at Big Pond was not on the agenda.
“They didn’t allow anyone to talk,” said Frank Rizzo, a resident who listened to the proceeding.
One member of the board, Larry Southard, offered pointed criticism of tower opponents, at one time saying they are misinformed and likening them to insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, according to Rizzo. At the Jan. 26 session, a resident had suggested that people boycott Southard’s business in town.
Brandi Page, the town administrator, declined Wednesday to comment on Tuesday’s session, referring a reporter to a recording of the meeting that was to be posted on the town’s website Thursday morning.
When the tower issue was taken up Jan. 26, an unknown number of people opposed to the tower were unable to join an online discussion, after the board’s Zoom meeting reached the maximum number of participants allowed by the town’s account. But, as many as 100 people did log on for the discussion, which grew heated at times amid calls for the board to drop the tower project entirely because of local opposition.
Residents who stand against the project, with help from the group Stop the Big Pond Cell Tower, have spelled out their opposition in a 26-page legal memo that was delivered to the town Feb. 3. Among other things, the memo says too little information is available to justify the project and that the tower would have an adverse impact on the neighborhood.
Town officials say they are interested in using a tower to fill a gap in emergency radio communications; having a telecommunications company put up a tower could allow them to place a radio antenna there as well, if that’s found to be an effective way to patch holes in the ability of crews to remain in touch out in the field.
Larry Gould, a member of the town’s Technology Committee, told listeners Jan. 26 that public safety officials seek ways to improve the reliability of radio networks. Residents opposed to the tower say that’s not reason enough to change the landscape around the area in East Otis, which is home to about 125 cottages and dwellings around its shores.
Page told The Eagle that the Zoom account has been upgraded to accommodate up to 500 people.
Though the tower itself wasn’t on Tuesday’s agenda, the night’s topics included discussion of an Open Meeting Law violation complaint that was filed Jan. 28 and is related to handling of the tower issue. Rizzo, who has a family home on Big Pond, wrote in his complaint to the Attorney General’s Office that the town mishandled the Jan. 26 session by failing to allow public access to all who wanted to participate during what he termed a “chaotic” proceeding.
“This is not how local gov’t meetings should be handled,” he wrote in the complaint.
In a response to Rizzo and the Attorney General’s Office, Page said the town has taken steps to expand access to its virtual meetings. She pointed out that the town rarely receives this level of public interest in municipal meetings.
Meantime, Page said officials have begun to evaluate the lone proposal that came in, from Verizon, in response to its request for proposals for a tower. The town declined a public records request from The Eagle for the Verizon proposal on the grounds that the Open Meeting Law exempts release of procurement documents until they have been evaluated.
For now, Page said, the town’s focus is to obtain information on emergency radio communications.
“We are still waiting on the information from the Berkshire Sheriff’s Office,” she said. “We have begun preliminary review of the proposal. Nothing new moves forward or happens until we can weigh the emergency radio feasibility.”