Our Town leadership should have heeded the well-known expression “Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance” in advance of the virtual Town Meeting on May 17. Instead, what was on display for all to see live on YouTube, GATV and other virtual access media was nothing short of an embarrassment. While hyper-partisan residents might dismiss that assessment as political vitriol, what occurred during that virtual meeting was so incompetent and egregious that this criticism can’t be called “just politics.”
As the Moderator opened the meeting, he explained that virtual meetings were an imperfect system. Fair enough. They are and this was. But that was all the more reason to carefully plan ahead how to adapt to the virtual format.
The Webex meeting was set up so individuals who logged in could only see the members of the Boards of Selectmen and Finance, the Registrars, and the meeting administrator – not the other attendees. It appears a decision was made to limit attendees’ visual access. Why? The software allows participants to see everyone.
Procedural problem quickly arose. A few minutes into the meeting, the Moderator announced there were 137 log-ins, well short of the 250 attendees needed to meet the quorum required for a vote on the budget. There was immediate push back on this statement by the first 10 or so people who were unmuted and allowed to speak. Their comments were based on reasonable points including the Moderator’s assumption that most log-ins represented one citizen, while the Town website did not state the “one log-in, one vote” policy that was about to disenfranchise people who logged in with multiple family members. About 25 minutes into the meeting, the Moderator relented and agreed to conduct a head count of all attendees. This is where the meeting came off the rails.
The counting requirement started with each logged-in attendee having to activate his or her camera so the Registrars could see them, then show their photo ID (everyone used their driver’s license) on camera. This seat-of-the-pants process change was both laborious and risky. Issues with people calling in on their phones – where they could not activate a camera – added to the chaos and forced several modifications to the validation process. One resident, recognizing the risk of showing one’s driver’s license on a live, unsecure broadcast, held up his ID with a finger over his license number. Then many attendees realized this process was a huge security risk. Previously-validated voters realized their names, address, DOBs and drivers license numbers were being recorded and broadcast over multiple media paths. This system was an identity thief’s dream. Subsequent attendees, some refusing to give any personal information, asked what would be done for those people whose information was broadcast, what responsibility the Town was going to take in the event of identity theft, and what would be done about the usual plan to make virtual town meetings available to the public for video replay.
Many citizens urged the Moderator to adjourn the meeting to a later date – noting that Connecticut policy regarding public meetings was changing in two days. Others suggested a vote on the proposed budget could have been conducted by absentee ballot as the First Selectman had urged for our recent local elections. Undeterred, the Moderator kept stating that the Town Charter called for the Town meeting on the budget to be held on this date and he would continue counting the individuals logged in, while providing no response to the very serious issues of personal data privacy that had clearly been breached.
Finally, one resident attendee read aloud the Town Charter wording regarding the annual budget meeting: “An annual meeting of the Town Meeting shall be held on the third Monday in May or, if in the opinion of the Board of Selectmen extraordinary circumstances make the meeting on such date impracticable, as soon thereafter as such circumstances permit.” The citizen suggested that these circumstances – the chaos of the counting, the privacy breaches, and the option to hold the meeting in person in the very near future – were “extraordinary” and this virtual meeting should be adjourned. The BOS members huddled for a few minutes and the meeting was indeed adjourned.
In sum, the planning and handling of this virtual meeting was a debacle. This is not a D versus R issue; this is an undeniable example of poor planning that has potentially serious consequences for several residents who wanted nothing more than to participate in the important act of voting on our town budget. Town leadership owes us all an apology, a thorough plan for those whose privacy was breached and a commitment to get its act together going forward. My hope is the rescheduled meeting will have sufficient attendance to meet the quorum threshold – and the voters will send the budget back to the Board of Finance to deliver a zero mill increase, which, I suspect, is what those who logged in wanted in the first place.