Greenwich Town Government Continues to Function Virtually
By Richard Kaufman
The coronavirus has affected almost every facet of life, as cities and towns across the country have been put on pause. A functioning government is imperative in times like these, and technology is playing a bigger role than ever before.
In Greenwich, with Town Hall closed, departments, boards and commissions have resorted to holding virtual meetings, via the popular video conferencing app, Zoom, to carry out business and agenda items.
On the town website at greenwichct.gov, there’s an entire page titled “Virtual Town Hall”, which features links to the virtual meeting pages of Town Hall departments, information on how to access Zoom meetings, links to the audio recordings and transcripts of meetings, and calendars of upcoming virtual meetings with supporting materials.
Abut a week-and-a-half ago, the Board of Selectmen held its first virtual meeting, which lasted over two hours. First Selectman Fred Camillo said the town is learning a lot about this new way of conducting business.
“This is showing us ways we can do things in the future. When things get back to normal whenever that is and we have a storm like we had [on Monday] but worse, when meetings normally would be cancelled in the past, now we know they don’t have to be cancelled. We know that we have a system in place where we can hold these meetings virtually. We’re also learning that a lot of us can work from home and be just as productive. Would that save money, would that streamline government going forward? Possibly,” Camillo said. “Government has transformed itself.”
One aspect of town government which has a lot of moving parts is the Representative Town Meeting. A few weeks ago, Camillo said, Gov. Ned Lamont suggested that perhaps towns should streamline the budget process, as it’s in full-swing this time of year. The Greenwich RTM is tasked with approving the budget every year.
“In Greenwich’s case, that would’ve cut out the RTM. We didn’t want that, and we sat down with our IT Department and lots of other people and they all worked together. They did this pretty quickly and they’re doing it really well,” noted Camillo. “The RTM has done a practice run, the BET has done them, Board of Selectmen. I’m not saying we’re all experts, but we’re doing well with it. It just shows you what you can do with technology, and how you can operate in a different manner.”
The RTM recently conducted a mock meeting using an agenda from 1998, with over of 210 of 230 members participating in voting. Future meetings and District meetings will take place on Zoom.
“It’s difficult. it’s cumbersome, it affects the exchange of ideas,” said RTM Moderator, Tom Byrne. “But I appreciate the fact that it allows us to carry on under these isolation limitations.”
Because of the RTM’s size, conducting voting is the biggest challenge during a full virtual meeting.
“It takes a long time and people don’t have the patience to wait. While absolutely nothing is happening for the majority of people, a handful are acting as a one-armed paper hanger,” Byrne said.
Each District has a tabulator, who is tasked with collecting votes from their members. Votes are submitted by text, google document, email or even telephone. The votes are then submitted to the town clerk’s office to be counted, and then they’re sent to Byrne, who announces the result.
“We’re hopeful that people are patient because it’s important we take the time and do the work that’s been assigned to us. We averaged at our practice meeting more than 10 minutes per vote, and that’s a lot of dead time for every vote,” Byrne noted.
On the town website at greenwichct.gov under the RTM tab, there is a button that says “RTM Virtual Meetings.” There, residents can sign up to speak on agenda items at future meetings.
Byrne said virtual RTM meetings would not be possible without the help of the town’s Chief Information Officer, Thomas Klein, who put together a team of volunteers to help with the technology.
“Jenny Larkin, Jake Ellis, Craig Jones… We’re totally dependent on their expertise, and they’ve been wonderful with the time they’ve devoted,” Byrne said.
The town’s annual budget meeting was pushed to June 8. Byrne said he’s keeping his fingers crossed that by then, the RTM will be able to meet in person.
“If [we’re on Zoom then], we will deal with it. If it takes two nights or whatever it takes, we’ll get the job done.”