220113ind meeting

A recent meeting of the North Kingstown Town Council is viewed on a laptop computer. Following a move by Gov. Dan McKee allowing for remote public access and participation in meetings, town councils and school committees throughout Rhode Island pivoted back to virtual meetings this week.

The surging number of cases of the omicron COVID-19 variant in Rhode Island has compelled local public boards and commissions to go back to offering remote meetings.

The move comes after Gov. Dan McKee signed a new executive order last week allowing for remote public access and participation in meetings.

South Kingstown’s Town Council reacted quickly this week to provide a hybrid regular meeting on Monday. Four members of the council were in the Town Hall chambers, and council member Jess Rose participated over Zoom. Rose initially told the council she was unable to hear the in-person proceedings, but the matter was eventually resolved.

The council typically always live streams its meetings, but hasn’t offered a remote public access option since last summer, when initial COVID cases began to rapidly drop and restrictions on in-person attendance were lifted.

For some, the switch back to Zoom meetings was a jolt back to March of 2020, when officials and the public were venturing into unknown territory and the technical hurdles (for example, “You’re on mute”) were many.  

One member of Narragansett’s Galilee Advisory Committee said Tuesday that she’d forgotten what it was like to attend a Zoom meeting. The committee originally planned to meet in a small board room in Town Hall – but that was two days before McKee’s executive order.

Narragansett’s next Town Council meeting on Jan. 18 is also expected to be held on Zoom.

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Neronha last week issued guidance on the governor’s executive order, which modifies certain provisions of the Open Meetings Act as part of the state’s emergency response to COVID-19. The order is in place until Feb. 4 unless renewed, modified, or terminated by subsequent executive order.

Like the prior order that expired on July 23, it permits meetings to be held virtually for any purpose and makes clear that public bodies must freely provide remote access to their meetings – such as on Zoom or through a conference phone call – even if they are able to convene in person.

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