BETHLEHEM — Although town boards are resuming in-person meetings as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, it won’t be entirely business as usual for one community.
If there was any upside that came out of the pandemic in Bethlehem it was greater participation at selectmen’s meetings.
Pre-pandemic, there might be a handful of residents showing up to town hall for a meeting.
Meetings during the pandemic, however, when selectmen met remotely via the Zoom teleconferencing platform, would sometimes draw a dozen or more residents, with many of them offering input.
Selectmen are hoping to keep it that way, by offering a remote option for all future meetings, including deliberative sessions.
Monday was the board’s first in-person meeting in 15 months, since March 2020, and during it they voted to expend money from the town’s tech capital reserve fund to buy the needed equipment.
“We are excited to be back,” said Board of Selectmen Chairman Gabe Boisseau.
He thanked town administrative assistant Tim Fleury and resident Harry Newell for Monday’s audio and video setup that allowed for a remote option through Zoom.
Two weeks ago, selectmen discussed the remote option and how it’s increased interest in selectmen’s meetings.
“A lot of people have been involved in the last 15 months, which has been great,” said Boisseau.
For the remote option, Newell has been lending the town his equipment.
The capital reserve fund expenditure will allow the town to purchase its own equipment, such as cameras, wall mounts, switches, microphones, cables, and TV tripods
“What that does is replace the jumble of wires … with one small box that allows us to feed into Zoom with different cameras that we’re borrowing from Harry right now,” said Fleury. “The town would purchase their own cameras, replace the projector with just a monitor and speakers. You can see everybody on the Zoom meetings and they can talk to everybody up here.”
A microphone will pick up voices without having to stand close to it.
The town would need a 24-inch monitor for the desk, like a TV control room with a camera 1 and camera 2, for instance, so when selectmen are speaking they will be on a feed for one camera and when someone else is at the microphone speaking they will be on another camera feed, said Fleury.
“That was the best practice in doing all the research,’ he said. “When you’re participating remotely, you get the full effect of seeing the board and seeing who’s speaking.”
The system will be available to all town boards and can be used at deliberative sessions, he said.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Selectman Mary Moritz. “I think it’s really important.”
“Outside the whole COVID thing, we hope to get more participation from people who can’t get here,” said Selectman Linda Moore. “They have an option to participate.”
The system will look neat and tidy when it’s installed, said Fleury.
One resident, attending remotely, was pleased with how Monday’s meeting went.
“I figured somebody should test this out from the other side,” said Veronica Morris. “I have to say from my side, when people are coming to the microphone, it’s really, really great. If this expenditure allows us to duplicate what we’re getting with Harry’s equipment, that will be terrific.”
Boisseau made an initial motion for the board to expend $2,163,56 from the tech capital reserve fund.
Selectman Bruce Caplain said the additional monitor would need to be added to that amount.
The board voted 5-0 to remove the specific dollar amount and authorized the monetary expenditure to purchase equipment for remote meetings.
Although selectmen came into Monday’s meeting wearing masks, they soon took them off.
“The current CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control] recommendations are if you’re vaccinated then there is no need for wearing masks indoors,” said Boisseau. “At this point, I’m fine as a board member with making it optional. If they want to wear a mask they can. If they don’t want to, they don’t have to.”