Virtual town meetings should be more accessible to the public

To the Editor:

I am writing to voice my continued concern regarding the various virtual town meetings. As a resident of Guilderland, I take an interest in what is going on with the various boards and committees.

Prior to COVID, I was able to attend the various meetings at Town Hall. Since COVID, I am relegated to either watching the meetings on a local cable channel or via livestream on the computer. When Guilderland resumed meetings and began a regular schedule of broadcasting, they added the telephone aspect so that the public could call in with questions or comments on various issues.

To say that this speaks to “transparency” or “participative government” is far from what happens. This town chose to go this route, yet it is ineffectual to say the least. There have been many important issues presented, and I certainly don’t feel as though I can fully rely on what has been said. Let’s look at some of the problems that many, including me, have encountered.

I think the number-one issue is that audio is extremely poor. For example, my husband is hearing-impaired and cannot hear any of these meetings. There is no closed captioning; therefore, no comment or question can be answered before there is a vote. This disenfranchises the hearing-impaired who want to participate and can’t.

For those of us who are not hearing-impaired, it still remains a challenge to hear what is being said. While I understand the need for social distancing and the wearing of masks, very often people do not speak into their microphones to be heard. Although this is raised frequently, nothing changes. This needs to be addressed and does not meet guidelines set out by the Americans with disabilities Act.

Other meetings are using a microphone held up to a laptop computer so that the public can be heard. This happens specifically with planning board meetings. Again, the distortion of this method prevents the general public from hearing exactly what is being said. In order to make a comment, or ask a question, the caller has to call in to another designated phone line.

Too often, calls are not answered, or they can end up in a loop where you are left in the cue. This has happened to me on several occasions, and to others as well. This is not transparent government and, although it has been raised at every meeting since June, there has been nothing done to correct the problem.

The other problem with this method is that, as a caller, you cannot hear what others are saying because you need to mute your TV or device so there is no background distortion. Using this method does not enable smooth conversation regarding important issues and it is difficult to follow what is going on.

I recently had the opportunity to meet with one of the town board members and discussed this very issue. I was told that all town meetings will continue like this through the end of the year. I suggested that perhaps the town should invest in a better system.

I was told that the town has looked into other systems and the cost was prohibitive and could not be done at this time. Well, guess what — more homework needs to be done, because there are systems out there that can be used and are not cost prohibitive.

In fact, as I was leaving, I was told the town was not in bad shape and had money saved. So, what is it? Does the town have the money to upgrade or not? What exactly has been done to address this issue?

For example, Zoom works very well and the investment is not that high. I am sure the town has Wi-Fi in the town meeting room — purchase a few tablets that are dedicated to these meetings. If big business can do it, so can this town hall. You can have up to 100 callers at a time. I have never seen that many people at a town meeting.

There have been numerous instances when meetings should be broadcast on a designated TV channel and it is not. In fact, that was the case this week with the Industrial Development Agency. Once I realized that the meeting that was broadcasting was not the correct one (it was a previous planning board meeting), I quickly grabbed my iPad and started to livestream.

I called in shortly after 7 p.m for a couple of reasons, but most importantly to let the committee know that the meeting was not being broadcast on TV and that the audio was horrible. There were only two people who could be heard clearly, and there were approximately 10 in the meeting.

No one answered the phone, and I tried my call several times to no avail. I finally hung up at about 7:30 p.m. and the meeting was adjourned at 7:37 p.m.

There is clearly something wrong with the phone setup as it is now. The town has set a precedent by allowing this interaction, yet it fails miserably. There are many important issues before this town and yet not enough attention is given to how this information is disseminated in a clear and understandable fashion.

While we understand the circumstances due to COVID, this appears to be a way of life for town Meetings for the past three months and for at least the next three months. Buck up and be as transparent as you say you are. Enable your constituents to participate as they should with a better system than what is in place now.

Robyn Gray


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