Coronavirus has posed a particular challenge to municipalities since public meetings require a public location where the meeting is “open to the public” and public bodies cannot prohibit people from attending the meeting at the public location. The NH Municipal Association encouraged municipalities to cancel or postpone meetings, if possible, or provide an alternative means of participating and encourage citizens to use them.
In a petition to the Governor to enable virtual public meetings for planning and zoning boards in New Hampshire, initiated by Market Square Architects, it read: “In an effort to keep the economy moving forward during these tumultuous times of covid 19, we need to keep the process of real estate development and construction moving forward in New Hampshire. If we do not, this will have a far lasting impact on our economy that may resonate for years.”
Many of us are preoccupied with coronavirus, but at the local level, the economy is in trouble. Many businesses, of all sizes, are closed. Many may not reopen. It is critical that the public be engaged in local decision making, but how can we engage the public, keep the economy up-and-running, and keep all involved safe?
The petition called on Governor Sununu to allow and encourage board members, city staff, design professionals and the public to participate through an open video forum and email regardless of city or town charter. A couple of days ago, Governor Sununu issued Emergency Order #12, which suspended several of the encumbrances to NH municipalities hosting virtual meetings. Now it is up to local governments to embrace the digital age.
Durham, where I serve on the Planning Board, responded by creating a hybrid meeting format in an effort to ensure no more than 10 people are in the Council Chambers at one time and that there is plenty of physical space in the Chambers for social distancing. Last night, I attended my first adapted Planning Board meeting — there were four Board members in the Chambers with the Town Planner, while the remaining Board members participated remotely. During the meeting, the public was provided with a telephone number so they can call in during public comments and public hearings. Residents were, as they always are, encouraged to send comments via email prior to the meeting, as well.
Your advocacy is needed more than ever. Check out my tips for advocacy here, and tell us in the comments how your community is embracing the digital age and moving forward in the age of corona(virus).