Scenes like this, with members of the public lining up to speak during a meeting of Portland's Sustainability and Transportation Committee at City Hall in February 2020, are unlikely to return anytime soon. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)
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It was unclear how long it would be before anything, including government meetings, returned to normal when Portland enacted a state of emergency on March 13, 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Now it appears meetings are no closer to returning to City Hall than they were more than a year and hundreds of remote Zoom meetings ago. Mayor Kate Snyder said it’s likely Zoom meetings are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.

Portland City Clerk Katherine Jones, top left, administers the oath of office to new City Councilors April Fournier, Mark Dion, and Andrew Zarro during the council’s remote meeting on Dec. 7, 2020. For several reasons, meetings via Zoom are expected to continue to be the way local government is conducted. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Elis)

Prior to March 2020, Maine was one of just a handful of states that did not explicitly allow cities and towns to host public meetings remotely. Snyder recently testified in favor of bills in the Legislature that would continue to authorize them.

“Portland is advocating for the continuation of rules that allow for remote participation in public meetings,” she told the legislators.

At least for the City Council, Snyder said, Portland has discovered remote meetings have actually led to an increase in public participation. She attributed that to people not having to travel to City Hall, pay for parking, potentially pay for child care, and then sit through a meeting as they wait for a particular item on the agenda. Instead, they can monitor the meeting at home, and there is more opportunity for engagement.

“Even if the elected body is back in person, I would like the ability for remote participation to continue,” Snyder said.

But if remote meetings continue, so do concerns about them.

For starters, there are the routine individual technical difficulties: speakers who forget to turn on their microphones, unstable internet connections, passcodes that don’t work. The city also had to cope with a major technological failure on April 5, when a statewide internet service outage caused by two breaks in Spectrum’s fiber network resulted in the postponement of a City Council meeting – including reconsideration of a vote on the controversial Munjoy Hill Historic District – for a week.

Additionally, several municipalities across the state have experienced meeting disruptions by so-called “Zoom bombers.” For example, a Falmouth Town Council meeting ended abruptly last year after “inappropriate and lewd behavior of one individual whose actions were viewed by several of the meeting participants,” according to the town.

Some concerns about remote meetings, however, are more problematic.

In a recent City Council meeting, Racial Equity Steering Committee Co-Chair Lelia DeAndrade said the 13 members of her panel never met all together in person.

DeAndrade later said this was the only experience she has ever had working closely in a group where she hadn’t met everyone personally. She called the committee’s Zoom meetings a “huge challenge.”

DeAndrade, a former college professor who now is the vice president of community impact at the Maine Community Foundation, said Zoom meetings are not conducive to “earnest conversations” and can be stifling, especially for members of the public who might want to speak.

“There are lots of people who aren’t going to be able to access that, or can’t engage with that, and are not going to be comfortable speaking,” she said. “It feels like speaking on TV.”

DeAndrade said remote meetings are a benefit for people who would otherwise have to travel far just to participate for a short time. Working for a statewide organization, she said, she’s seen people travel as much as five hours to take part in a meeting. She also acknowledged it can be hard for people to get to City Hall, sit for several hours, and then get up to speak in an “uptight and formal environment” like Council Chambers.

“We’ve been thinking about it, how could the council make this more accessible to more people?” she said. “And I can’t think of a better way to do it. It’s just a challenging way.”

But remote meetings don’t always provide easier access. The convenience may only apply to people with homes and access to internet-connected computers, which ignores those who are homeless.

Kate Sykes, an organizer with the progressive group People First Portland, said remote meetings should be just “one tool in a toolbox we can use to have people really engage with their government.”

Video meetings aren’t necessarily the most equitable for people who don’t have reliable internet, computers, or phones to call in, Sykes said. Homeless individuals have a harder time connecting with the city in this method, she said, along with older people who are less technologically savvy.

DeAndrade said there needs to be a “really critical equity lens” looking at this issue. “We have so many people who don’t have reliable internet access or computers, and that’s a big stumbling block,” she said.

She also pointed to potential language barriers as a significant challenge to all-remote meetings. For someone who is not a native speaker, she said, the challenge of participation only increases with continued remote meetings.

Brandon Mazer, chair of the city Planning Board, said the year of remote meetings has gone “as well as can be expected” for his panel. “I do find that our meetings tend to go longer and it’s a little bit slower going than in person,” he said.

Previously, the board would break for about half an hour between workshops and the regular portion of its meetings. That’s become harder to do, Mazer said, because it doesn’t want applicants or members of the public to just have to wait that long on their computers.

Another benefit, and challenge, has been the increased public participation as a result of meeting remotely, Mazer said. He said it’s good that people are more able to engage since they can be at home cooking dinner or spending time with their children. But he said on the other hand it has also led to an increase in disrespectful dialogue.

Although Mazer typically asks for those speaking at Planning Board meetings to refrain from personal attacks, he said people seem to feel more comfortable at home and as a result can be more combative.

“I think we’re going to see the remote meetings or the availability to be able to participate remotely be around for the foreseeable future,” he said. “Whether or not that’s permanent, I don’t know. But at least for the next few years, I think we’ll see some sort of ability to do it.”

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