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Local governments in Capital Region grapple with online meetings

Local governments in Capital Region grapple with online meetings

Social distancing forcing officials to adapt
Local governments in Capital Region grapple with online meetings
Saratoga Springs City Hall
Photographer: File Photo

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Mute your microphones.

As the world rapidly adjusts to new routines and teleconferencing usage amid the coronavirus pandemic, so are local governments who must keep the wheels of government running despite social distancing. 

Like workers in the private sector, localities are pivoting to the use of new software, using programs like Zoom and WebEx, to conduct remote meetings. 

Saratoga Springs City Council used Zoom on Thursday when they convened a special session to set a public hearing for an amendment to the city’s CDGB Entitlement Action Plan. 

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Officials sailed through the breezy affair, which took fewer than five minutes. 

The city also plans to augment use of the technology with webcasts. 

As they navigate the dramatically-altered landscape, localities are also wrestling with whether to hold their meetings in person.

An executive order issued by the state on March 13 suspended the requirement for local governments to allow public access to meetings, but localities must provide live feeds for people to watch remotely.

Schenectady and Saratoga Springs City Hall are closed to the public, and lawmakers participated in meetings this week remotely.

Scotia, which is experimenting with Zoom and WebEx, held an in-person meeting last week, but abided by the six-foot social distancing requirements, said Mayor Tom Gifford. 

Four town board members attended Glenville’s meeting on Wednesday, while one board member and two town officials participated virtually.

The town has previously hosted Facebook Live events and is working with Town TV to install software and cameras that will allow for virtual town hall meetings, said Supervisor Chris Koetzle, who hopes to have the system operational by their next meeting on April 15.

Other localities are continuing to research which software to use.

A spokesperson for the Schenectady County Legislature said last week they will finalize their decision on how best to proceed before the next scheduled meeting on Monday.

The county has already offered numerous tech upgrades for staffers, including providing employees with encrypted virtual network connections that allow them to work from home desktops and issuing laptops with virtual network connections and cellphones to essential personnel. 

Amsterdam Mayor Michael Cinquanti said the city will likely choose to utilize Zoom ahead of their meeting on Tuesday.

The city doesn’t have an IT department, adding an additional knot to untangle, Cinquanti said.

Localities are also trying to determine how to best incorporate public input.

“We’re still working out details for how to host and receive comments for public hearings, as well as public comments,” said city Finance Commissioner Michele Matigan.

Under state law, localities must accept public comment during hearings designed to hash out new legislation, but are not required to allow the public to weigh in at regular meetings.

Both the Spa and Electric Cities offer “privilege of the floor” when constituents can address lawmakers. 

That can range from one-off speakers weighing in on specific legislation to frequent fliers who delight in lacerating city officials, a regular biweekly occurrence in Schenectady.

Saratoga Springs will likely ask for public comments to be submitted by email, Matigan said. 

Schenectady City Council, which is using WebEx, also asked for constituents on Monday to submit formal comments electronically.

Adapting to the new landscape hasn’t been without its challenges. 

Feedback and ambient noise plagued the Schenectady City Council’s first first online meeting on March 23, creating a soundtrack akin to an experimental industrial music.

City Council President John Mootooveren pleaded with everyone to mute their microphones. 

Dogs barked in the background; one lawmaker griped over their inability to question a union official, and another called for the meeting to be dismissed entirely.

“The first portion of the meeting was a little rough, to put it mildly,” said City Councilman John Polimeni.

Monday’s meeting was far smoother, with few disruptions. The screen displayed resolutions under consideration — awarding a $424,250 bid for improvements to Central Park's A-Diamond and tweaks allowing broader participation by Minority- and Women- Owned Businesses in bidding for city contracts — which lawmakers approved via voice vote. 

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Business as usual, but without the Pledge of Allegiance or dodging barbs from angry constituents. 

In Scotia, Gifford said he was pleased with how officials have adapted to the new technology, and indicated the village hopes to continue with web broadcasts even after the crisis passes.

“We may keep it after we get done with this disaster,” Gifford said.

Saratoga County and the Town of Niskayuna didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

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