PEABODY — A special permit hearing by videoconference on Zoom for a four-story, 42-condo development at 40-42 Endicott St. was just the kind of scenario Councilor-at-large Anne Manning-Martin envisioned last month.
That's when she asked her fellow councilors to forego opening controversial special permit hearings in remote council sessions, because neighbors might be frozen out due to a lack of technology in their homes.
Her concern, expressed in a May 4 column in The Salem News, is that there are a lot of residents without internet access and computers, meaning they could be shut out of participating in public hearings.
About 25 residents had turned out to a special permit hearing on the project before the coronavirus pandemic, a hearing that was postponed.
Manning-Martin pointed out that U.S. Census data shows "computer-access inequities" in the Endicott Street neighborhood, with more than 500 households lacking computer access.
"I'm not adverse to the council utilizing remote meetings during this pandemic," she wrote, "but I am dead set against requiring the public to do so without providing the public the tools, venue and access to be heard."
This Thursday, a remote hearing on the project is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. It's scheduled to be broadcast on Peabody TV.
During a remote meeting on April 23, Manning-Martin asked the council to not hold "controversial" special permit hearings on major construction or zoning changes due to the inability of residents to participate. Some councilors said they had no way of knowing what might or might not prove controversial.
Her motion failed 1-10, but there's a motion to reconsider this vote on Thursday's agenda.
Manning-Martin was, however, successful in getting an opinion from City Solicitor Donald Conn Jr. on "whether the Council would be subject to litigation and whether the Council would be acting outside its capacity as an elected body if it proceeds" under an emergency state law passed during the pandemic. That law grants cities and towns the ability to delay hearings out of concern about meeting permitting deadlines.
Conn said the emergency law allows the City Council "to suspend hearings until a period of time not more than 45 days after the current State of Emergency."
The law also gives the council the authority "to conduct meetings and hearings remotely" as long as they comply with Gov. Charlie Baker's emergency order.
Alternatives to meeting in public might mean the use of phone, internet, satellite-enabled audio, video conferencing or other technology.
City Council President Tom Rossignoll said he has worked with City Clerk Allyson Danforth and Conn to come up with a way to be able to continue the city's business in as normal a fashion as possible. Rossignoll even conducts the council meetings sitting in City Hall while others participate remotely.
He noted that residents can weigh in on Zoom, although it can bump participants out of meetings due to internet connectivity issues, but every special permit hearing is recessed until the following meeting, giving residents at least two weeks to weigh in by phone, email or mail, Rossignoll said.
"I never want to squelch anyone's voice, ever," he said.
Rossignoll said he would not entertain making a zoning change via Zoom.
Now, it appears some councilors have had a change of heart.
Councilor-at-large Tom Gould asked the council to reconsider Manning-Martin's motion, saying he should have voted differently. "I got home (and) said to my wife, 'If anyone wants the opportunity to speak and they don't, shame on us.'"
Ward 5 Councilor Joel Saslaw said he plans to support Gould's motion to reconsider. In retrospect, he said he was a bit confused about Manning-Martin's motion, thinking the council would have to come up with a procedure to vote on whether special permits were controversial or not.
"Governor Baker put this tool in the toolbox, and if we don't use it we are making a mistake as a body," Saslaw said.
Manning-Martin could not be reached for further comment on Tuesday.
Next door in Salem, the city has been conducting meetings on Zoom for special permits and the process has gone well, according to Dominick Pangallo, chief of staff to Mayor Kim Driscoll.