Work of Marblehead group studying hybrid public meetings gets underway

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A half-dozen members of a new town committee that will study the cost implications and logistics around technological infrastructure necessary to give hybrid access to all Marblehead public meetings convened their inaugural meeting in Abbot Hall on Tuesday morning.

The study group, known as the Article 44 Committee, was established when the Town Meeting adopted the-then town moderator Gary Spiess’ motion for its formation on the Town Meeting floor in May. His recommendation that a study committee be established arrived after resident Lynn Nadeau, who now sits on the study group, withdrew her citizens petition (Article 44), calling for “all town boards and committees to full implement best practices…governing remote participation by ensuring the use of hybrid meeting platforms at all public meetings.”

“I do think it would have passed,” Nadeau said of Article 44, “but the Finance Committee did have [questions] about how much it was going to cost and how we implement it.”

Marblehead resident Lynn Nadeau’s citizen petition proposing a mandate that all boards and commissions adopt best practices for remote, hybrid participation in public meetings.

When she brought her petition forward, she said she did it with the end goal of improving civic engagement in democratic processes in mind.

“I just want to see a robust democracy. There are so many impediments to participation, and we need direct information in order to participate,” said Nadeau. “We don’t want to hear what our neighbors think the meeting was about – we want to be able to be at a meeting and know what was said.”

As the saying goes: Necessity is the mother of invention. The COVID-19 pandemic required municipalities to adopt technology that permitted remote, hybrid participation. The pivot opened local governments up to citizens like never before, so the pandemic, in many ways, taught cities and towns what’s possible.

And in many ways, the group’s work could extend these pandemic-era accommodations.

Dollars and cents

As Nadeau mentioned, Article 44 when printed on the 2022 Marblehead Town Warrant did not come with a price tag. This caused some concern for the Marblehead Finance Committee, and resident Jeff Shribman, the study committee’s chairman, said the centerpiece priority for the group will be figuring out cost.

“This is all about what the cost is going to be,” said Shribman. “And anything you add is going to add to the cost [because] somebody has to run the equipment. So there’s going to be an administrative costs to every meeting.”

Shribman said no one questioned Article 44’s merits.

“If there was no cost to this, this would be just OK,” said Shribman. “No one is going to be opposed to this. No one could be opposed to it.”

Resident Megan Sweeney encouraged members to expand their purview and not solely laser in on financial aspects.

“Which is all that I sort of heard today, because I feel like we need to think creatively about how to make our meetings more accessible,” she said. “Think about the true intent of this article, which is to make our meetings more accessible for all and not just able-bodied people but just everybody.”

Members are getting started as pending legislation sits atop Beacon Hill that targets remote, hybrid participation. What might emerge in state law could complicate members’ work as they carry out their charge with the end goal of producing a findings report and packaging recommendations for Town Meeting’s consideration.

Members of the so-called Article 44 committee convened their inaugural meeting in Abbot Hall on Tuesday morning.

Over the next couple months, the study group will conduct best-practices research, take an inventory of board and committees and where they convene public meetings and, as noted, the dollars and cents behind Article 44’s implementation through a cost analysis.

Marblehead Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer said Town Meeting approval would enshrine any public-meeting mandates into bylaws. Alongside Kezer, Shribman and Nadeau, the committee’s membership includes residents Nancy Powell, a Marblehead League of Women Voters member, Amy Drinker and Pat Buchanan, a Finance Committee member.

The only real formal action carried out on Tuesday morning was a vote to invite a Marblehead Disabilities Commission member to the group’s table. It was welcomed news by resident Laurie Blaisdell, who serves on the commission and attended the inaugural meeting.

“We are very happy,” she told the Marblehead News after adjournment. “We are looking forward to what transpires.”

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