By ALEX MALM For weeks elected officials on social media and in City Council chambers have expressed their concerns about not having the option to meet remotely during the pandemic. Those calling for remote in addition to in-person meetings got their
For weeks elected officials on social media and in City Council chambers have expressed their concerns about not having the option to meet remotely during the pandemic.
Those calling for remote in addition to in-person meetings got their wish last week when Gov. Dan McKee signed an executive order which will allow elected officials and members of the public to participate remotely during public meetings.
Under the current Open Meeting Act legislation members of public bodies must be in person in order to participate. The executive order allows for that provision to be relaxed until at least Feb. 4.
“It’s about damn time,” said Cranston Citywide Councilwoman Nicole Renzulli.
Renzulli became vocal about allowing meetings to take place remotely after she had to miss her first committee meetings as a council member in December following her 12-year-old son testing positive for COVID and not being able to find childcare because of it.
“I’m not sure what took so long to make it happen as cases have been surging for over a month, but I’m happy the Open Meetings Act has been relaxed by Executive Order, to allow for expanded virtual meetings,” said Renzulli.
Following the shutdown in March 2020 at the outbreak of Covid-19, public bodies had the ability to meet remotely by executive order. That order expired on July 23, 2021.
Before the executive order expired there was a push at the General Assembly to pass legislation on the behalf of the Rhode Island Department of Business Regulations which would’ve allowed remote meetings to occur until July 1 2023.
That legislation didn’t get voted on.
One of those who spoke publicly in support for the option of remote meetings was Warwick Ward 2 Councilor Jeremy Rix using his councilor comments during the Jan.3 meeting to make his point known.
"Several folks in Ward 2, both before and after the Omicron variant emerged, have requested that the City Council meetings be available through Zoom,” said Rix. “Almost everyone around here has Internet access and we know from before that we can make it work. Having to physically attend meetings, which can last for hours into the evening, can be a significant barrier for public participation. Regardless of whether people have to fear catching a dangerous disease or not, I support keeping greater public access to City Council meetings."
With the temporary rule in place allowing remote meetings Cranston isn’t wasting time. The City Council is expected to meet remotely this Thursday.
“I’m pleased that the Governor signed the executive order to allow virtual meetings during the current Covid surge,” said Cranston City Council President Chris Paplauskas. “Starting with this Thursday’s committee meetings the City Council will go all virtual. I will be monitoring closely the Covid numbers and continue to adjust how the meetings will be conducted moving forward in the safest way possible. In Cranston we made the necessary upgrades in technology to offer either full virtual meetings or a hybrid meetings format.”
Warwick City Council President Steve McAllister hadn’t made a decision earlier this week whether or not they will be moving to full remote meetings.
“The Governor’s (executive order) gives us a couple different options. I am working with the council solicitor on the details,” said McAllister. Warwick Mayor Frank Picozzi questioned Tuesday the benefit of remote meetings since generally public meetings are poorly attended. He said if remote meetings or hybrid meetings became the norm the city would be faced with hiring additional personnel and purchasing equipment. He said the decision to go all remote or hybrid is left up to the chair of the commission or board and the Council President in case of the council.
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