As cases of coronavirus rise across the state, the Town Board in Caroga is planning to go from online public Zoom meetings to hybrid meetings with an in-person component.
The hybrid meetings are a compromise between two feuding board members with different assessments of the risks associated with contracting the virus and differing views on what obligation the town government has to allow for public participation in meetings during a pandemic.
On Nov. 4, during a special meeting of the Town Board, the board voted 4-1 to end its practice of conducting public meetings via the Zoom video conferencing program in favor of resuming in-person only meetings.
“We were having problems with the Zoom meetings, some technical issues, and then meetings started getting out of control,” Town Supervisor Scott Horton said. “We were having difficulty seeing what was going on. We have one council member that won’t [physically] attend the meetings, and he was orchestrating people who were on Zoom, with text messages and the like, and so we shut it down, and we said we just want in-person meetings.”
That policy didn’t last for long. The board unanimously reversed course at its Nov. 10 meeting after public outcry, some of it from elderly town residents and people who own summer camps in the town who prefer the Zoom meetings.
The board decided instead to go with a hybrid meeting model, allowing up to 10 members of the public to attend the meeting physically, and for anyone else to continue participating through Zoom.
“I voted for it, but I wasn’t real happy about it,” Horton said.
Town Board Member James Long led the opposition to shutting down the public Zoom meetings. He said Horton’s push for in-person meetings is based on the false belief that the risk of contracting the virus is “essentially zero.”
“That simply isn’t true,” Long said. “We know that COVID-19 is on the rise, and we have a duty to protect the lives of a very vulnerable population. Our demographics in the Town of Caroga skew toward the elderly, myself included. We could have a very serious situation if COVID-19 starts spreading through this community, and we have a meeting room that has zero ventilation. That’s legal for us to meet, but contrary to [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines.”
The state Department of Health’s COVID-19 tracker showed 7 new positive cases in Fulton County out of 309 people tested Friday. The rural county’s positive rate of 1.2 percent is lower than New York State’s statewide positivity rate of 2.92 Percent, but the 7 new cases was a significant increase over most days over the last several weeks.
Long said he believes at least one of the 28 Fulton County residents who have died from COVID-19 was a Town of Caroga resident.
Horton said he’s more concerned about contracting the coronavirus now than he was in June, but his desire to end the public Zoom meetings was motivated by his even greater concern for the amount of influence the tech-savvy Long can wield operating in the virtual space.
“He’s gone rogue on us, and he’s out there stirring the pot,” Horton said. “I would be much happier, if councilman Long were at the meetings and we were doing the meetings virtually, then having him attend as part of the virtual audience, which is very, very upsetting to me.”
Long has not physically attended any town board meetings since the outbreak of the pandemic, while the rest of the town board has met in-person at town hall while allowing the public to attend the board meetings via the Zoom video conferencing program.
Horton said Long has taken advantage of the “cloak of not being there physically” during the Zoom meetings to manipulate public opinion and pressure the board. He said he also thinks it’s unfair for Long to have the special privilege of not physically attending the meetings while the other members of the board have agreed to do so just because he thinks he might catch the virus.
“We’ve been talking about this for three months — that we wanted him to be with us — because the rest of us are taking our own health risks,” Horton said. “There’s no doubt about it, you can’t say there’s zero risk, and he’s chosen not to do that. He’s locked himself up like Biden in the basement.”
Horton, who is 70, said several members of the town board are at greater risk for COVID-19, but they’re still willing to risk their lives to meet together in-person, and he thinks Long should too.
“We’ve got two people with medical conditions and then two other people over 70, and then we have James Long, who claims he has a medical condition — he’s never told us what it is — but it’s too risky for him to be there,” Horton said.
Long, who is 67, confirmed that he has a pre-existing medical condition, but said Horton shouldn’t be discussing it publicly. He said he’s very concerned about the virus surging during the winter months, and he believes he’s well within his rights not to attend town board meetings in person.
“New York State Public Officers Law, Article 7, Open Meetings Law, Section 103, paragraphs C and D — and I’m doing this from memory — allow me to attend remotely, if my location is public and disclosed,” Long said.
Long said the coronavirus executive orders issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in March, which have been extended through Dec. 3, allow local governments to hold virtual public meetings as a means of facilitating social district to help curb the spread of the virus, and those executive orders also give him the right to attend those meetings virtually without disclosing his location.
Horton said during the board’s Zoom meetings the board has no video screen to observe the virtual attendees, which gives Long an advantage over the rest of the board.
“At the last meeting he says ‘Uh, we’ve got 40 people on here, and they’re all thumbs down.’ Well, I don’t believe him,” Horton said. “He’s in there saying, ‘Oh we’ve got nine thumbs down for this or that,’ how do I know that’s true?”
A different kind of meeting
While most local governments and school districts in New York state have had to deal with the technical difficulties of conducting virtual public meetings during the worst months of the coronavirus, few are affected in the same way as the Town of Caroga, which Horton said only has about 1,200 year-round residents, but many more seasonal residents, who usually don’t show up to fall or winter board meetings, even when the town budget is being discussed.
“In the summertime we go up to thousands, and the populace of the number of people who can attend these virtual meetings, simply by dialing a phone number, is going to be greater than what we normally have,” Horton said.
The public Zoom meetings have given season residents the opportunity to have a louder voice in the town budget process, and many have liked the virtual process, despite Horton’s concerns about Long.
“People got used to it,” Horton said. “You’ve got to remember, if you go back to January, by law, you had to be in-person, but once somebody gets something and they find it more convenient, because they don’t have to go out in the weather — I get it. It’s much more convenient to attend, and I love the idea of the open meetings — I just don’t want an open meeting that ends up becoming chaos because of shenanigans going on that I can’t see.”
Horton blamed Long for disrupting the town board’s 2021 budget process during its Zoom meetings in a way that convinced people their taxes were going up more than they actually were.
“People were calling me like crazy saying their taxes were going up $1,000 or something like that,” he said. “He just constantly exaggerates things. He’s a reactionary.”
The Town of Caroga’s 2021 adopted budget includes $1.4 million in total spending, and increases the town’s tax rate per thousand dollars of assessed value from $5.96 to $7.02, a 17.5 percent increase, according to budget documents linked to townofcaroga.com, a website owned and controlled by Long.
Long said the Town Board in January approved townofcaroga.com as the “website of record” for the town for the second year in a row.
“Remarkably, it did happen again in January, although I don’t know if they knew it was my website,” he said.
Horton said Long has updated townofcaroga.com live during the board’s Zoom meetings, a disruption to the normal flow of the budget process.
“He comes on, in the middle of the meeting and says ‘Uh, I just published this on my website, so everybody would know.’ Well that, to me, means he left the meeting — he claims he has two screens — but unless he’s two people, if he’s doing that then he wasn’t engaged in the meeting, and that’s a violation of his sworn duty,” Horton said.
Long said Horton resents that he has the ability to communicate with the rest of the town via townofcaroga.com as well as the newsletter he publishes called the “Caroga News Flash.”
“It is not during the meeting, but after the meeting, that I have the advantage of being able to write, and to be on the correct side of the facts,” Long said. “The power of the press remains quite potent in this country, and I communicate with people via emails and one on one phone calls, and I communicate the facts.”
Horton said Zoom public meetings give Long the opportunity to send instant messages and emails, and post information to townofcaroga.com, all live while the meeting is happening, giving him outsized influence over town board business.
“If he was physically with us, and I saw him text messaging, I could gavel that and stop him.” Horton exclaimed. “I don’t have the ability to gavel that, because I can’t even see it.”
Long said Horton’s confidential secretary, Tor Shekerjian, is the moderator of the town’s Zoom meetings and has all of the real control over the virtual setting.
“He and his confidential secretary control the Zoom meeting, not me,” Long said. “[Shekerjian] controls which townsperson, or attendee, is allowed to speak, but we all can communicate, in the modern world, in many different ways. One doesn’t need Zoom.”
But Zoom is all the Town Board will have for its next meeting, an all-virtual public hearing for adjustments to the 2021 budget set for 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Horton said there isn’t enough time before Wednesday to work out all of the rules for how to conduct a Zoom/in-person hybrid format meeting. He said he wants to get a large-screen monitor so he can see what Long and others are doing during the meeting. He said he feels virtual meetings encourage bad behavior on the part of participants, and he would like to find a way to safeguard against that.
“When people are face-to-face they act differently than when it’s virtual,” Horton said. “People are more respectful usually. I had a couple of my detractors at the last meeting come in, in-person, and they were much more respectful than they have been during the virtual meetings. I want government to be orderly.”
Long said he believes it would be wrong for Horton to attempt to restrict virtual meeting attendees from having the same public comment opportunities that are given to people who attend in-person.
“If you have a Zoom component, the rights afforded must be equal to those who are participating in-person, and by tradition, we have allowed public speaking during that time,” Long said.
Horton said the Caroga Town Board will try for the zoom/in-person hybrid format at it’s first regular meeting in December.
Dec. 9 the first hybrid meeting
Wednesday public meeting