Wednesday, April 24, 2024

A snarl of cords and cables enables a Planning Board meeting Feb. 4, 2020, shortly before the Covid pandemic canceled in-person meetings. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Developers have introduced plans remotely during the Covid pandemic, but may be expected to hold either a hybrid meeting, which community members can attend in person or online, or two meetings – one in each format, Planning Board members said Tuesday.

Staff will draft language amending board rules, run it past Law Department staff and advertise the change by Oct. 31 for a board vote afterward, the board agreed.

“I don’t think the pandemic is going away. It’s going to go up and down and be around for a long time,” member Steven Cohen said. “After two years, not only are we used to [meeting remotely], but I think most people like it, for all sorts of reasons. If we had these meetings remotely for the rest of my life, that would be fine.”

Only developers’ early community engagement meetings were talked about Tuesday. Planning Board meetings themselves continue virtually, along with nearly all boards and commissions, though some have held outdoor sessions for walking tours or pop-up events to gather public opinion. The city’s elected bodies – the City Council and School Committee – returned months ago to meeting in-person with an option for members to take part remotely.

Organizations such as the ACLU and League of Women Voters hope state law will change permanently to allow for remote participation as an aid to people with disabilities who have difficulty attending meetings in person, member H Theodore Cohen noted.

The remote meetings are allowed under pandemic-era suspensions of the state’s Open Meeting Law. One suspension ended July 15, and Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law the next day to extend remote-meeting provisions until March 31. The Planning Board has rules requiring developers to hold in-person community meetings to show and discuss their plans, but those rules are also suspended.

“The ability to meet with the developers face-to-face and look at a model is very helpful,” board vice chair Mary Flynn said. “But this pandemic goes up and down. Just I myself know like five people who have tested positive within the last two weeks.”

Board members phrased meeting options in varying ways over a 20-minute discussion. As the talk went on, there were fewer mentions of “hybrid” meetings. At one point, chair Catherine Preston Connolly phrased a continued suspension of developer rules as: “You don’t have to meet in person, but you’re encouraged to. And if we go back to the original rules, we say you are required to have an in-person meeting, and also we recommend that you have a virtual option.”