It appears many municipal legislative bodies across the state, including the Peabody City Council, are using Zoom for their public meetings at the expense of public input. The council is changing the way we meet because of a misread of Gov. Baker’s March 23 order “assuring continued operation of essential services in the commonwealth, closing certain workplaces, and prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people. The problem is, the order “shall not apply to any municipal legislative body or to the General Court or the Judiciary.”
The council misinterprets as support of these changes the governor’s order suspending certain provisions of the Open Meeting Law. This order merely “relieves” the Council of holding physical meetings in certain cases – it does not require the council conduct public business remotely in every situation. This alternative does not provide for real-time, active public participation equally to all citizens. The public must be invited to comment at a hearing before we make these changes. To change the rules affecting public participation in hearings without allowing the public to be heard prior to their implementation, without publicly posting a hearing on the matter for public input, and without a vote cancelling the council chamber as the meeting location and replacing it with a virtual location violates not only the purpose and intent of the governor’s emergency order, but also the city charter, city code, council rules and the Open Meeting Law. For these reasons, I strongly oppose the City Council’s unlawful decision to conduct hearings on special permits remotely.
I am not adverse to the council utilizing remote meetings during this pandemic, 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 can be achieved, but not in the current format thrust upon all of us. If it cannot be done correctly, then only essential business not requiring public input should be conducted by Zoom, and only after the council votes on it after following the proper process. I propose we continue to allow the public to comment at physical hearings while at the same time accommodate those who prefer to comment by video conferencing. But if we cannot include everyone, we cannot hold remote hearings.
When I was council president, we experienced a situation that infringed upon the right of all members of the public to be heard during special permit hearings. The elevators in City Hall were inoperable, thus excluding access and participation by disabled members of the public to council meetings, which were (are still) required to be held on the second floor, in council chambers. The public has the right to be heard at all hearings on special permits. Consequently, I suspended all special permit hearings until the elevators were repaired so that all members of the public had equal access to exercise their right to speak.
At that time, I got unanimous support from my fellow councilors because it was a strongly embraced belief that no one should be denied their right to be heard due to the government’s inability to provide unimpeded access for everyone to be heard. It was the right thing to do.
Our current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic poses the same dilemma. What was so obviously wrong, and so easily corrected, in the broken elevator situation has somehow escaped the current council’s problem-solving abilities, resulting in the total shut-out of certain citizens from the special permit hearings -- namely those without computer and internet access.
There is a significant segment of our citizenry who will be denied their right to be heard due to the council’s insistence on everyone meeting remotely, without accommodating those without the technology to attend. Many citizens do not have the equipment Zoom requires to participate --WiFi, smart phones, email, computers, laptops, tablets or computers equipped with microphones and video cameras. These citizens will not be able to attend, and it is not their fault.
Federal Census data identifies these computer-access inequities in the very neighborhood where a huge 42-unit, four-story, multi-family development is scheduled for a special permit hearing at our next City Council Zoom meeting -- on Endicott Street, the same neighborhood in which I grew up and still adore. The same neighborhood that, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, was leafleted with notices of the scheduled special permit hearing on this very project by a senior citizen who knew her neighbors wanted and needed to be there and be heard. Her effort resulted in more than 25 residents appearing to be heard and speak against the project affecting their property, safety and quality of life. This proposal was recessed and rescheduled to be “heard” during the shutdown where many of these same neighbors will not have the technology to participate or be heard on a matter that they obviously care about.
More than 500 households in this Endicott Street neighborhood have no computer access of any kind through any means, that is 21% of the households in this neighborhood census tract. An additional 50 households have no internet access through any means. Lower-income families may rely on the now shuttered public library or their worksite to provide internet access, also not likely to be an option during the pandemic. That means that 23% of the Endicott Street neighbors will not be able to participate in a Zoom special permit hearing on the project. Not only will they not be able to participate in it, but they also won’t even know about it. That is because the City Council now posts all meeting agendas on the city’s website -- a website that neighbors who are sheltering in place without computer or internet access will not be able to even access. Moreover, local newspapers have been forced to reduce their daily print coverage. These hi-tech inequities will only increase as the pandemic continues and more residents are economically affected by the coronavirus shut down, foregoing the expense of internet access in favor of more important expenditures, like food, and more businesses close while government buildings such as the Peabody Institute Library and Peabody City Hall continue to be boarded up.
This council, in contrast with the 2011 City Council, has forgotten the primary purpose of government is to safeguard against the infringement of individual rights. There is a balance that must be struck, but the council struck the wrong balance and is infringing on the touchstone of due process –-meaningful notice and an opportunity to be heard.
Democracy requires that citizens be heard by the council in person on important votes. To suggest, let alone require, that they “mail in” their concerns is an affront to our democracy and everything America represents. The council should reverse the wrongheaded course on which it now forges ahead and forego special permit hearings and other hearings where the public has a right to weigh in until we can conduct hearings that protect the civil rights of all citizens.
Anne Manning-Martin is a Peabody city councilor at-large.