MERIDEN — The City Council is eyeing a return to in-person meetings after more than 16 months’ worth of meetings during which councilors, city officials and members of the public have tuned into those public deliberations from home offices and other locations.
That return won’t happen before the council’s next meeting, scheduled for tonight. Both the regular council meeting and a special public hearing, during which the council will discuss a proposed temporary moratorium on cannabis establishments, will be held remotely by videoconference.
Tentatively, the council’s first in-person meeting since March 2020 is scheduled Monday, Aug. 16. The council and other public bodies started to deliberate remotely following Gov. Ned Lamont’s issuance of an executive order that suspended requirements that open public meetings be held in-person, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which at the time had newly spread to the state. The order stipulated that agencies must provide public access to those meetings through videoconferencing, telephone conference calls or other technology.
Meanwhile, in Wallingford and Southington, those town councils recently resumed in-person sessions.
Mayor Kevin Scarpati, who presides over the City Council’s regular meeting deliberations, stated in an email the current plan is to return to in-person sessions for the council’s Aug. 16 meeting. The location of the in-person meeting has yet to be determined.
“With COVID cases climbing in our community and others across our nation, this remains a fluid situation,” Scarpati wrote. That return would apply to meetings of the council as a whole and not its standing committees.
“...We want to be sure that we can safely accommodate elected officials, staff, and members of the public who choose to attend our meetings in person,” Scarpati wrote.
City Manager Timothy Coon indicated if the council does resume in-person meetings, they will likely have a hybrid format, to allow councilors, city officials and residents the ability to attend remotely.
Councilor Bob Williams, of the We the People Party, is among the councilors who has been advocating a return to in-person meetings. Williams noted other city boards and commissions have resumed in person meetings. The Planning Commission’s monthly meetings for June and July were both convened in-person. The Board of Education resumed its in-person deliberations last fall, with the public able to view the proceedings remotely in real time through the Google Meets video conferencing platform.
“We should be meeting in person. The public should be in attendance. I don’t think there’s any reason why we should not have been meeting in-person the last three months,” Williams said. “I totally think we should be.”
Williams noted City Hall has been open for business in-person during that time. “Why should we be any different as councilors?” he asked.
Republican Brunet, the council’s minority leader, said members of his party also have been seeking a return to in-person meetings since restrictions were lifted in May.
“We’re prepared to go,” Brunet said.
When asked if remote meetings have had an impact on the council’s deliberations, Brunet said he felt they have to some extent, but it’s difficult to determine how much.
“I find there are many more distractions [when you’re participating in a meeting] at home. I think it takes away from the personal approach of being face-to-fact with individuals. It takes away your concentration,” Brunet said, adding being a member of the council takes a commitment.
Brunet said attendance for meetings is especially important for him. Brunet estimated he had missed three meetings during an 11-year stretch on the council.
“I am like an iron man on the committee,” he said. “I don’t miss time.”
Democratic Councilor Michael Rohde said he feels the remote meetings have actually worked out well and have proven productive for the council as a whole and its standing committees.
“We get our work done,” Rohde said. “I don’t think we missed a whole lot.”
For example, during a recent meeting of the council’s Economic Development, Housing and Zoning Committee, which Rohde chairs, that committee opened discussions regarding the proposed moratorium on cannabis establishments.
The city is one of several communities statewide that is considering a local moratorium since state lawmakers enacted legislation that legalized recreational marijuana for residents over the age of 21.
In Meriden, the proposed moratorium, if adopted, would be effective for three months, a time period officials said would provide the city enough time to craft and adopt zoning regulations related to cannabis establishments.