MERIDEN — A Microsoft video conferencing platform will soon allow city boards and commissions to meet remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
City Manager Tim Coon this week said city staff is “working out the final kinks” for the new Microsoft Teams software, which he said is also being used by state government during the pandemic, and he expects it will be ready to use beginning next week
The software, which is being used to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, will allow elected and appointed members of city agencies to conduct meetings remotely. It will also allow the public to watch and listen to meetings in real-time and, according to Coon, it meets all the transparency and access requirements set forth by Gov. Ned Lamont in an executive order issued earlier this month allowing municipalities to hold meetings remotely.
On March 16, Coon announced that all city meetings would be canceled until the city could get the new video software up and running. The cancellations have meant the CIty Council’s Finance Committee hasn’t been able to hold budget presentations from city departments as part of the council’s annual budget adoption process. The council usually wraps up in early May, as required by City Charter, however, Lamont in an executive order extended the deadline for municipalities to pass their budgets.
Coon said it’s “not impossible” the City Council could still pass a budget in early May because the council was already ahead of schedule before the pandemic hit. Depending on how the pandemic unfolds, the City Council may need to hold all of its meetings and deliberations on the 2020-21 budget remotely. This will mean that rather than holding an in-person public hearing on the budget prior to adoption, which is required by Charter, the city will make it possible for residents to submit their comments on the budget in writing, either through email or other online channels.
Coon said the new software will also allow residents to submit written comments for the record during meetings, though the staff is still figuring out exactly how. The city’s law department recently reviewed the system and determined it meets all the requirements that Lamont set forth in his order allowing municipalities to hold meetings remotely.
The order notably required: that the public is able to hear and watch the remote meetings in real-time; that a recording and transcription of the meeting be posted to the city’s website within seven days; and that the city post information about how to access the meeting along with the agenda in advance of the meeting.
Council Majority Leader David Lowell asked the public to be patient and have an “abundance of cooperation and understanding” as the city works out the new system.
The new budget will be debated and adopted with a backdrop of widespread financial turmoil felt by thousands of residents and businesses across the city as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic — something Lowell said the council needs to be “sensitive” about in its deliberations.
The council started its budget process with a budget proposal from Coon that would raise taxes and overall spending by 2.4 percent. Lowell said he and other councilors had already set their sights on getting the increase to zero before the pandemic hit.
“That was important to begin with,” Lowell said about the zero increase. “It becomes profoundly more important with the added financial challenges.”
The pandemic may have a financial impact on the 2020-21 budget, but Lowell said it’s too early to say how large that effect will be and which expenses caused by the pandemic would be covered by state or federal reimbursements.
The meeting cancelations caused by the pandemic also put a stop to the city’s search for a new police chief, as the nine-member Police Chief Search Committee hasn’t been able to meet.
Coon said the committee is currently in the process of receiving applications, adding about 35 people have applied so far. He declined to say whether any applicants were internal.
The original plan was to start interviewing candidates around the middle or end of April and hire a new chief by June 1 before outgoing Police Chief Jeffry Cossette retires at the end of June.
Coon is optimistic the city will still be able to have a successor in place in time. It’s possible that the first rounds of interviews may need to be done over Skype, Coon said, but he added he wouldn’t want to hire a police chief without first meeting him or her.