Following social distancing guidelines, town meetings in The County plan to go remote
HOULTON, Maine– When towns and cities in Aroostook County convene for their next council meetings, the public won’t be attending — at least not in person.
In an unprecedented step to conform to social distancing guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, places like Houlton, Presque Isle, Caribou and Fort Kent will not allow any public attendees, instead broadcasting meetings on public access television and internet live streaming to allow community participation.
“This is all new grounds for all of us,” Cathy O’Leary, Houlton town clerk and assistant town manager, said. “It’s just the way everything is.”
Ordinarily, barring the public from council meetings would be in clear violation of the law. But recent emergency measures enacted by Gov. Janet Mills allows municipalities to hold remote public meetings, in order to practice the social distancing measures that scientists and disease control experts recommend for stopping the spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that has infected over 100,000 people already in the United States.
While council meetings have aired on public access television for some time, this practice creates some obstacles in ensuring that all of the public can have their say. Just airing them on those channels means citizens cannot directly participate in any debates and those without access to cable may not be able to see any of what happens.
To make up for that, towns are also looking to the internet to allow for broader public participation. The town of Caribou is broadcasting a livestream on YouTube, while Fort Kent plans to air on Facebook Live. Both streaming services allow viewers to comment in real time, meaning any questions asked by citizens can be relayed to the council members while the meeting is still in session.
Caribou and Presque Isle are also looking into using Zoom, a videoconferencing app which many workplaces have adopted in the time of COVID-19. But the newness of the technology and the rapidity with which it must be put in place means the councils must act quickly to adapt.
“We’ve been working through some of the bugs with Zoom right now and making sure we can get everybody connected to it,” Dennis Marker, Caribou city manager, said. “It’s still kind of a trial basis for that.”
In Fort Kent, planning and zoning board meetings are also expected to be taking place over Zoom. But the next meeting, scheduled for Monday, April 13, will utilize Facebook Live to address audiences.
Suzie Paradis, Fort Kent town manager, said she plans to have someone watch for questions, and expects the meetings to go on as usual.
“I truly don’t think our agendas will have anything controversial,” Paradis said. “It’ll just be the normal meeting minutes, and if we have any general assistance cases it won’t be anything out of the norm.”