Portland City Council meetings, and most other city government meetings, are expected to return soon to City Hall. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)
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It seems almost implausible, even impossible to imagine, but the end of this month could mark the transition back to in-person meetings for Portland’s City Council, Planning Board, and other committees, including the new Charter Commission.

Maine’s state of emergency for the coronavirus pandemic ended June 30, and Portland’s order is set to expire at the end of July. And while city officials previously discussed the possibility of continuing remote meetings for the foreseeable future, it now appears a return to City Hall, at least in some capacity, is slated for August.

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder said councilors are looking forward to meeting in person, adding that those who were elected last November – Mark Dion, April Fournier, and Andrew Zarro – still haven’t had the experience of a meeting in Council Chambers.

“We’ll need to take the initial meeting slowly, and beg for patience and forgiveness,” Snyder said.

But she also said she has no apprehension about returning to the in-person meetings since all councilors and required city staff are fully vaccinated.

“The council will meet in person for their August meetings, and we are working to have staff and the public available via Zoom for remote participation. So it would be hybrid style.”

City Hall spokesperson Jessica Grondin

Portland officials also advocated at the state level to allow meetings to continue with remote public participation. Maine was one of just a handful of states that prior to March 2020 did not permit remote participation through video conferencing. Snyder was one of several officials from around the state who testified before the Legislature on the benefits of extending remote participation beyond the pandemic.

“We’ve learned it’s really convenient for people to be able to Zoom in when their issue is being discussed and not have to sit in Council Chambers or get a babysitter or deal with parking,” the mayor said.

Several bills were introduced in the last session to allow the continuation of remote participation, and Gov. Janet Mills signed LD 32, which allows municipalities, public universities, and other regional bodies to continue remote access for officials and constituents after the pandemic state of emergency ends.

One challenge facing elected officials as they return to City Hall is something that never presented itself during the remote era: having to coordinate the use and availability of meeting space.

During its inaugural meeting on June 28, the Charter Commission discussed the desire to meet in person again, which will likely begin after its July 28 public hearing. But the city clerk advised the panel that when in-person meetings begin again, the commission simply can’t just pick any time or day of the week; it will have to coordinate with the City Council, Planning Board, and other commissions and committees that have meetings already scheduled in specific City Hall rooms, particularly the Council Chambers.

The City Council typically meets in Council Chambers twice a month, on the second and fourth Mondays, unless it has to schedule additional meetings or has to move because of a Monday holiday. The Planning Board typically meets in Council Chambers on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month. The Planning Board, however, still plans to continue to meet remotely in the near future.

Charter Commission Secretary Peter Eglinton said it was discussed during the commission’s organizational meeting that the City Council would be developing a policy for continued remote participation.

“I’m interested to hear what they have to say,” he said. “Remote participation would make it easier for more folks to watch and engage with the commission.”

Eglinton added, however, that in-person meetings would also “allow for a richer discussion and personal connections among those present.”

“Following a hybrid approach might be best,” he said, “although such meetings can be harder to facilitate.”

Other groups, like the Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee, meet on the second Tuesday of the month in Room 209, while the Housing and Economic Development Committee meets on the first and third Tuesdays of every month in Room 308. The Finance Committee meets on Thursdays in a similar fashion.

According to City Hall spokesperson Jessica Grondin, the City Council must adopt its own set of rules to extend the city’s ability to continue offering remote participation, even in a hybrid model. The council only meets once this month, on July 19, and she said the hope is to have the matter on the agenda.

“The council will meet in person for their August meetings, and we are working to have staff and the public available via Zoom for remote participation,” Grondin said in an email. “So it would be hybrid style.”

She said she believes each board or committee would also have to adopt their own remote participation rules.

Because of the prior state law and the timeframe of the city’s expiring state of emergency, Snyder said the council would have had to be either all in-person or all-remote this month. She said city staff is working to make sure the city complies with state law and then make sure the technology involved is up to speed “so we can be in Council Chambers and people can see us.”

Snyder said part of that will also involve discussions with the Portland Media Center, which has historically televised council meetings on local access channels. She said these are conversations councilors will have on July 19. 

Tom Handel, executive director of the media center, said council meetings will be broadcast on Channel 2, the local access channel, once those meetings are again held in City Hall. 

“That’s what staff is working on, so people can see it all (on Zoom and local access),” Snyder said.

Additionally, the council will discuss protocols that may be imposed on members of the public if there is a return to in-person meetings, including possible mask and vaccination requirements.

“Part of the reason we didn’t rush to do in-person in July is the policy, but there’s still a lot to work out,” Snyder said.

Portland has reopened City Hall to the public in a limited capacity since the end of May, with masks still required for visitors.

Snyder, like Grondin, said she believes it will likely be up to each board and committee to adopt its own policies for hybrid meetings.

Maine’s Freedom of Access Act ensures public access to meetings and governing bodies, as well as public records. During the state of emergency, access to these meetings was granted by telephonic, video, electronic, or other means of remote participation with specific conditions. Those rules are repealed 30 days after the termination of the state of emergency.