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Bennington Select Board meeting goes online

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BENNINGTON — It wasn't exactly a brave new world, but it was one that had shifted considerably.

Select Board Chairman Donald Campbell sat alone at the middle of one of the long tables behind which the entire board normally sits during regular meetings. The other board members were visible throughout the Zoom teleconferencing event as stamp-size heads with sometimes squeaky voices staring back at the chairman from the screen of an open Dell laptop.

Campbell wasn't utterly alone in the meeting room at the Bennington Fire Facility, however. Seated about six degrees of required separation to his left was Assistant Town Manager Dan Monks — filling in for Town Manager Stuart Hurd, who was in voluntary quarantine.

The board's "audience" consisted of one reporter a healthy distance from the "board's" table, and zero citizens asking pointed questions about taxes, or anything else.

"Let's just consider this the first pancake with this new technology," Campbell said, "and hopefully we will get better at it as time goes by."

After the meeting, Campbell said he, Monks, Mike Cutler, of Catamount TV, and others worked to set up the meeting, make sure it would meet Open Meeting Law requirements, and get the videoconferencing/local cable television production ready to roll.

As for Bennington's town manager, Hurd and his wife, Probate Judge D. Justine Scanlon, recently returned from a vacation in the Caribbean and had passed through airports, prompting an abundance of caution decision to self-quarantine when they returned.

Speaking with Campbell during the online meeting, Hurd said he hasn't had flu symptoms but made the decision to stay at home away from other town employees after consulting with town Health Officer Larry McLeod.

"Just to be clear, I had considered this possibility and Larry confirmed it was the right thing to do," Hurd said in a subsequent email.

He also praised Monks for filling in as manager, and for overseeing the response of town government to the coronavirus, as did Campbell.

"It goes without saying that Dan and the town staff have done a tremendous job," Hurd said.

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First online meeting

The first-ever online session of the Bennington Select Board was, of course, a reaction to the rapidly spreading coronavirus and the sometimes fatal disease it can cause, COVID-19. Vermont, like most other states, has called on businesses to shut down or drastically curtail person-to-person contact, and for the cancellation of just about every public event.

And this could be just the beginning, Campbell said. At his suggestion, the virtual board gave the nod to online meetings until health officials say restrictions are no longer necessary, and to online updates for board members on Mondays when no posted meeting is scheduled.

Speaking of posting meetings and the meeting law, Campbell noted that state lawmakers — who also are exploring possible methods of meeting and even voting online — are considering at least temporary revisions to the law to allow online sessions while a state of emergency exists.

Other Vermont communities are navigating a similar landscape. On the same night, the Burlington City Council held its own first-ever virtual meeting, and many towns and certainly businesses around the state are rapidly switching to some form or audio- or videoconferencing, whether or not they have ever done so before.

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In a mostly rural state striving to significantly reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, many expect online meetings and new, innovative technical approaches to become more the norm.

Tech issues

The technical glitches Monday were primarily of the "mute," "unmute" variety, as Campbell sometimes, often with a quip, struggled to turn off one remote speaker or allow another. When things didn't go quite as planned, the sounds fleetingly resembled a cacophony of rock band feedback.

It took a few adjustments at times to get ungarbled comments from board members; and getting a motion, a second and then a board vote had a delayed-reaction feel to it. But the town's business did get done.

The meeting equipment was set up at the firehouse with help from Cutler and CAT-TV, which simultaneously showed the meeting live on Facebook and on the cable network's Channel 17.

Campbell said the next challenge would be to create a system that more easily allows questions or comments from people watching the meeting. He called that a priority if the state's distancing restrictions remain in effect, which he believes will be the case for several weeks.

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Secretary of State Jim Condos has raised the issue of how citizens would participate in online sessions during the Legislature's consideration of temporary meeting law changes. He also recommended that any public meetings be recorded.

Sober updates

Participating in the meeting were several officials who said they've done their share of videoconferencing as the conoravirus epidemic has spread through Vermont.

Tom Dee, CEO and president of Southwestern Vermont Health Care; medical center Chief Medical Officer Dr. Trey Dobson; Megan Herrington, district director with the Vermont Department of Health; Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Superintendent Jim Culkeen, and Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette all provided updates concerning the health crisis and answered questions from board members.

Also on the agenda Monday was the appointment of a town representative and alternates to the Communications Union District, which was approved by Bennington voters at town meeting.

The CUD, which board member Bruce Lee-Clark noted has the goal of expanding high-speed internet access in the area, could prove an important resource as more municipal and private sector business is shifted to online options.

Eric Hatch was named the town's representative, while John Dyck and Beth Hardesty were named as alternates.

The town and a half-dozen others in Bennington County approved joining the district in the annual elections.

A district will allow participating towns to collaborate on planning, constructing and operating a broadband network that would reach underserved areas.

Also on Monday, the Select Board approved allowing either the chairman or the vice chairwoman to sign warrants the board is unable to otherwise carry out town business due to the illness of members during the state of emergency.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien


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