STOCKBRIDGE — As the coronavirus pandemic appears to recede, will the town’s hybrid Select Board meetings, held at the Town Offices but also available via Zoom and Community Television for the Southern Berkshires, continue online?
Some residents and local political groups certainly hope so.
The Stockbridge Democratic Town Committee has asked the Select Board to support an article on the May 16 annual town meeting warrant requiring that all public meetings be available remotely, in a hybrid format.
“Although the need for hybrid meetings came as a response to COVID-19, the ability to watch and participate in meetings in real time as well as to access them anytime on CTSB-TV has been widely embraced by the residents of Stockbridge,” read the committee’s statement, which was released by Chairwoman Anita Schwerner.
In a town where the majority of homeowners are part-time residents, “remote meetings are extremely valuable for them and they appreciate being able to participate in town meetings,” the statement said. “Meetings with a remote option have the advantage of enabling participation from home or anywhere in the world.”
The committee also touted Zoom meetings for “increasing participation among residents and members of the public who find it difficult to attend in person due to a wide variety of reasons including harsh winter weather, inability to travel, illness or concern over exposure to illness, and conflicts with work or family obligations.”
At a recent Select Board meeting, Chairwoman Roxanne McCaffrey acknowledged that emails have been received from the public supporting hybrid meetings. But, she pointed out that there was no mandate from state government to present Zoom meetings.
McCaffrey also cited pending legislation that could produce a decision on the issue by mid-March.
“Quite frankly, I think it would be wise to wait and see how that places out and what decision the state comes up with,” she said, “because we could be spinning our wheels and spending time on something that isn’t necessarily going to be needed.”
“The decision may be made for us,” Selectman Ernest J. “Chuck” Cardillo agreed.
Predicting that the state will continue to allow hybrid meetings but not mandate them, Selectman Patrick White described Stockbridge as unique because the town’s median age is older than 60 — far older than the statewide median — and that over half the real estate is owned by people who do not live year-round in the town.
“We’re all better off when we get the most engagement we can from folks,” White suggested. “Ensuring hybrid meetings is going to be important.” He agreed, however, that it’s best to wait for the state’s decision.
“There are some subtleties, nuances and legal requirements,” he added. “There’s a bunch of considerations to take into account, so, let’s make sure the work is done before the town meeting and we’ll figure it out.”
McCaffrey voiced the hope that more people turn out in person for town government meetings “with the opportunity to meet some of your neighbors and community members.”
“You don’t get that when you’re remote,” she said. “The isolation we’ve all experienced, I think, has been fairly damaging to a lot of people. You lose something when you’re not in person, being able to see body language and being able to communicate probably a lot more effectively and get your point across more effectively than when you’re on a screen.”
At the same time, McCaffrey acknowledged “the great value that the hybrid format has to encourage greater public participation.”
Board members agreed to resume discussing the issue when state guidance emerges.