Johnston has shifted back to some virtual meetings following a shift in state policy connected to the recent skyrocketing COVID infection rates.
This week’s Johnston Town Council meeting took place both in person and online, via Zoom. The Johnston School Committee met virtually on Tuesday.
“I hope everybody is having a safe winter and had a good New Year,” Johnston School Committee member Joseph Rotella, who represents District 4, said during Tuesday night’s meeting. “I look forward to hopefully having these meetings back in person, having everybody be healthy and back in schools.”
For weeks Ocean State elected officials on social media and in Warwick City Council chambers have expressed their concerns about not having the option to meet remotely during the pandemic.
Those calling for it got their wish last week when Gov. Dan McKee signed an executive order which will allow elected officials and members of the public to participate remotely during public meetings.
Under the current Open Meeting Act legislation, all members of public bodies must be in person in order to participate. The executive order allows for that provision to be relaxed until at least Feb. 4.
“It’s about damn time,” said Cranston Citywide Councilwoman Nicole Renzulli.
Renzulli became vocal about allowing meetings to take place remotely after she had to miss her first committee meetings as a council member in December following her 12-year-old son testing positive for Covid and not being able to find childcare because of it.
“I’m not sure what took so long to make it happen as cases have been surging for over a month, but I’m happy the Open Meetings Act has been relaxed by Executive Order, to allow for expanded virtual meetings,” said Renzulli.
For months public bodies had the ability to meet remotely through a previous executive order similar to the one signed by McKee. That order expired on July 23.
Before the executive order expired there was a push at the General Assembly to pass legislation on the behalf of the Rhode Island Department of Business Regulations which would’ve allowed remote meetings to occur until July1, 2023.
That legislation didn’t get voted on.
One of those who spoke publicly in support for the option of remote meetings was Warwick Ward 2 Councilor Jeremy Rix, using his councilor comments during the Jan.3 meeting to make his point known.
"Several folks in Ward 2, both before and after the Omicron variant emerged, have requested that the City Council meetings be available through Zoom,” Rix said at the Jan. 3 meeting. “Almost everyone around here has Internet access and we know from before that we can make it work. Having to physically attend meetings, which can last for hours into the evening, can be a significant barrier for public participation. Regardless of whether people have to fear catching a dangerous disease or not, I support keeping greater public access to City Council meetings."
With the temporary rule in place allowing remote meetings Cranston doesn’t plan on wasting time, as it is expected to begin remote meetings for the City Council starting Thursday.
“I’m pleased that the Governor signed the executive order to allow virtual meetings during the current Covid surge,” said Cranston City Council President Chris Paplauskas. “Starting with this Thursday’s committee meetings the City Council will go all virtual. I will be monitoring closely the Covid numbers and continue to adjust how the meetings will be conducted moving forward in the safest way possible. In Cranston we made the necessary upgrades in technology to offer either full virtual meetings or a hybrid meetings format.”
Warwick City Council President Steve McAllister said that he hasn’t made a decision on whether or not they will be moving to full remote meetings.
“The Governor’s (executive order) gives us a couple different options. I am working with the council solicitor on the details,” said McAllister. “If the Covid numbers continue to spike we may have the Jan. 19 meeting be a full remote meeting. But no final decision has been made yet.”
Asked when the time limit would be for the Council to make a decision on whether or not they will meet remotely, McAllister said “Attorney Walsh is looking into that, but most likely just 48 hours before the meeting when the agenda gets posted on the SOS website. But we will make a decision before then just so everyone can plan.”
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