Members of Burlington’s General Bylaw Review Committee were before the town Select Board on April 10 with an updated draft of rules to allow for hybrid or virtual meetings moving forward.
Similar articles were proposed at January’s Town Meeting, but were withdrawn so the committee could rework them with more input from the community.
“It seems like if we can maybe just try to be a leader when it comes to how towns use technology to get their agenda and their focus and their goals met,” said General Bylaw Review Committee member Wendy Guthro. “We think we have great brain power here. Let’s try to use it.”
The draft articles would authorize the Select Board to file a home rule petition with the state legislature. If the legislature passed the home rule petition, Burlington boards and committees would have the option to allow hybrid meetings as long as there was appropriate technology available. Board and committee members would be required to give notice to the Town Clerk or their committee chair in order to attend remotely. Boards could reach quorum even if a majority of members were voting remotely.
The effect would be to allow Burlington to continue running its committee meetings and Town Meetings as it has been during the pandemic even if the state government rescinds pandemic-era hybrid meeting laws. Those laws are currently in effect until March 31, 2025.
“I’m not really a fan of hybrid meetings,” said Select Board Member Mike Espejo. He said it was easier to work hybrid meetings for small boards like the Planning Board or the Select Board, but it got complicated with Town Meeting. He pointed to COVID-era Town Meetings when virtual attendees couldn’t hear or the Town Moderator couldn’t tell who was raising their hands.
“This is 2023 technology meets a 1799 form of government, so we’re trying to blend the two worlds that we’re in, and I get that,” Espejo said. “That said, anything we can do to increase participation, increase attendance – because we know that Town Meeting attendance is sometimes lacking – is a good thing. We just have to figure out where the pain points are.”
Select Board members seemed to favor requiring cameras to be on for all remote attendees, so that no one would be able to sign on as a Town Meeting Member and impersonate them during official proceedings.
Burlington is not the only community considering hybrid rules for local government: Plymouth Town Meeting in June 2022 asked the state to allow hybrid meetings in that town; the House and Senate passed the legislation in December, and former Gov. Charlie Baker signed it into law that same month. Natick, Wayland, Lexington and Brookline have all sought permission to allow hybrid meetings as well.
“As far as the reasons for doing it, a lot of it has to do with participation, and allowing different groups to be a part of government,” said General Bylaw Review Committee member Michelle Huntoon. “That’s not just groups that have gained visibility during the pandemic because of their immunocompromised status or other health issues, but also people with hectic work schedules, parents with young children who are having an issue finding childcare, people who travel for work.”
Huntoon said the committee intends to reintroduce reworked articles at September’s Town Meeting.