PEABODY — The City Council has received pushback on its use of Zoom to conduct major business during the coronavirus pandemic, even drawing a lawsuit from residents last week in Superior Court.
Still, only a minority of the council voted against continuing to do major city business this way late last week.
Last Thursday, Councilor-at-large Tom Gould moved to reconsider Councilor-at-large Anne Manning-Martin's failed motion from a prior meeting that the council "not open public hearings on special permits involving major construction or zoning changes." Gould's motion failed, 3-8, leading the council to take up a recessed hearing for a proposed condo development at 40-42 Endicott St.
Two days earlier, on May 12, residents Russell Donovan, Jaclyn Corriveau and Dianne Hamilton filed a lawsuit in Superior Court seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the council from holding its May 14 meeting via Zoom "and enjoining any future remote council meetings unless and until all notices and public participation requirements can be satisfied," according to court documents.
In a twist, with the court also closed due to COVID-19, the court hearing was held remotely via teleconference on the day of the council's meeting.
"We filed a lawsuit and went before the judge and the judge ... ruled the show would go on," said Donovan, a city government watchdog who ran unsuccessfully for Ward 1 councilor last November.
Superior Court Judge James Lang said the council is authorized by legislation and the governor's emergency order to conduct business remotely "provided that adequate alternative means are provided for public access to, and participation in, the meetings."
Lang found the city's mechanism for public participation complied as residents can also email comments, watch on Zoom, or phone in their sentiments.
Council President Tom Rossignoll told the council that all special permit hearings will be recessed until the next meeting, giving residents time to make their voices heard.
"The last thing this council wants to do in any way, shape or form is to stifle or limit public participation," he said during the public hearing. "If anything, it is more enhanced now than it was in our previous format, because you have a two-week lag between the beginning of the hearing and the end of the hearing to have your thoughts, your concerns addressed" by mail, phone or email.
However, the judge did point to some technical glitches regarding the council's first two remote meetings, but these were not considered violations. He noted that now instructions to take part in the meetings, a link to access Zoom, and several call-in phone numbers were posted on the city's website.
As for the posting of the agenda, the judge said it had appeared on the city's website, though it was unclear if it had been posted 48 hours in advance. While the city has stopped posting meetings inside a closed City Hall, the judge noted the city should be posting them outside the building as a remedy. Documents on the meeting should be supplied in advance.
"Make no mistake about it: The judge agreed that Russ Donovan was right and the city got it wrong," Manning-Martin said via email, referring to the issues with posting council agendas. "And if the city wants to continue to have hearings by remote, they had better get it right moving forward."
Manning-Martin said she feels like she is trapped in a nightmare. She is concerned residents without access to technology are being shut out.
Ellsworth Road resident Jarrod Hochman, a member of the School Committee (which is also holding meetings on Zoom), objected to special permit hearings being conducted on Zoom. He asked, at Thursday's hearing, if a request to participate in the meeting had to be made by the Tuesday before the Thursday meeting.
"That is incorrect," Rossignoll said. "Just as you are speaking right now, anybody that is wanting to access this meeting via Zoom has the capability of speaking at every hearing."