With the ongoing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kingston Common Council last week voted to return to virtual committee and regular meetings after two months of conducting business in person.
“I’m concerned for the health and well-being not only of the members of the community but also for the members of the Common Council,” said Majority Leader Reynolds Scott-Childress (D-Ward 3) during the meeting held on Tuesday, September 7. “Speaking as somebody who is immune-compromised, I have deep concerns about continuing to have public meetings in the period where we don’t know what’s happening with the Delta variant of the COVID virus. And also to protect our workers, who are doing such a great job to make this seem very easy for us.”
The decision was reached later in a day where Mayor Steve Noble announced a similar decision about board and committee meetings. The Common Council measure was passed by a 6-3 vote, with those opposed including Democratic alderpersons Don Tallerman (Ward 5) and Michele Hirsch (Ward 9), and non-enrolled alderman Patrick O’Reilly (Ward 7).
“The council should meet in person whenever we possibly can, and there’s lots of reasons for that,” said O’Reilly. “But one of the most important reasons is because we’re elected by the people of our neighborhoods to do this job.” O’Reilly questioned the effectiveness of virtual meetings and added that the council should at least be expected to do what’s being asked of children across the city. “We’re making our kids go back to school, right?” O’Reilly said. “Our little children are going back to school. And they’re all going to be there with their masks on, trudging through this terrible time like brave little soldiers…I think we should be trudging through like everybody else.”
New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed legislation on September 2 extending virtual access to public meetings under the state’s Open Meetings Law through January 15, 2022 provided the public has access to view or listen to the meeting, and as long as the meeting is recorded and later transcribed. “Let’s be clear — the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and I’ve heard from government officials across the state who are concerned about the inability of their constituents to access public meetings virtually,” said Hochul in a press release. «This commonsense legislation extends a privilege that not only helps New Yorkers participate safely in the political process, but also increases New Yorkers› access to their government by allowing for more options to view public meetings. This law will continue to bolster the open and transparent style of government that we›re committed to maintaining in the Empire State.”
The importance of personal contact
In July of this year, the Common Council held its first in-person meeting since the pandemic stopped the world in its tracks in mid-March 2020. Former Governor Andrew Cuomo allowed the state of emergency to expire in late June of this year, forcing municipal governments to hold in-person meetings under the state’s Open Meetings Law.
Like O’Reilly, Tallerman said he believed in-person meetings were of “great value” to the community.
“Tonight, for instance, I made a connection with virtually every member of the council and others in attendance at the meeting, and I think that matters,” Tallerman said. “When we meet by (video service) Zoom there’s something important that’s missing. There’s the nuance, there’s the human interaction, there’s the body language, and it’s an important form of communication that helps us as a deliberative body come to good discussions. I think that we should take all necessary precautions with masks and distancing and continue to meet in person.”
Hirsch said that the council should meet in person as city employees have not returned to working from home. “Our municipal city offices are open to the public,” she said. “We’re still expecting our city employees to be at work utilizing masking and social distancing rules.”
Alderman Steven Schabot (D-Ward 8) said he understood both sides of the argument but voted to return to virtual meetings. “I really don’t feel like I lost touch with my constituency when we were having virtual meetings,” said Schabot. “I still get a lot of phone calls. People call me pretty much every day about one thing or another. My constituents don’t come to see me sit here. They’d rather talk to me and calling me on the phone is a better opportunity for them to talk to me.”
The next — virtual — meeting of the Common Council is scheduled for Tuesday, October 5.