Virtual or in-person? Vernon Township Council Debates future of hybrid meetings

VERNON. While some members voiced safety concerns of returning to an in-person-only format, others wanted face-to-face collaboration.

Vernon /
| 27 Jul 2022 | 09:09

At the July 11 town council meeting, Vernon Council President Patrick Rizzuto brought up the topic of hybrid council meetings, and whether they want to go back to in-person only meetings, or continue with the hybrid structure. Rizzuto said it was important to have the discussion to get feedback from the council and town residents.

Councilman Brian Lynch made a motion to do away with hybrid meetings.

Councilman Mike Furrey said he was not in favor of moving away from hybrid meetings. Furrey explained that he thinks the amount of public participation and the ability for the public to participate in the meetings has gone up since the meetings have been hybrid. Furrey also noted that he attends virtually via Zoom because he has asked a Sergeant of Arms to be present at the back of the council meetings, which has not occurred. Furrey said he asked the council and the mayor, but “that request was never honored. I would be perfectly fine to come in person if a Sergeant of Arms was present.” Furrey stated that there were times when he was in person at council meetings, and felt threatened by some of the comments that some of the public was making. Furrey explained that he was not threatened directly but some of the comments were directed at Mayor Howard Burrell and Councilman Harry Shortway. “I would not want to see anyone get hurt,” said Furrey.

Councilman Shortway responded to the council president’s statement that he and the town attorney can summon the police at a moment’s notice. Shortway added that, based on his experience, calling the police at a moment’s notice will not work.

“You’ve had people enter the meeting and if I did a threat assessment on them, it’s a threat,” said Shortway.

Shortway explained that all he and Furrey were asking was to put a plainclothes officer in the lobby. “We’ve had issues with people in the lobby that are attending the meetings.” With a plain clothes officer in attendance, the officer would be there to prevent something from happening. He also prefers a hybrid meeting model for people who can’t get out, such as disabled people and senior citizens.

Rizzuto objected to the call for a police presence because he thought it might discourage public participation, due to an officer’s intimidating presence, adding, “And certainly having the police officer in plain clothes would be even more intimidating because now the public might say they’re being duped in the sense that the police officer doesn’t even have the ability to wear a uniform.”

Council Vice President Natalie Buccieri said that she strongly supports hybrid meetings because it increased public participation and benefitted community members that don’t feel comfortable driving at night, those with young children, or residents with tight schedules. Buccieri also noted that having two councilmen attend virtually limited participation among the council’s five members. She said she wished there was a way to have the public participate through Zoom for public comments, while requiring councilmembers to attend in person. Buccieri explained that “we are elected officials, we’ve made a commitment to our community, and sometimes that commitment requires us to be in uncomfortable positions.”

Furrey said that he does participate, attends all meetings virtually, asks questions and is involved in the decision-making process with all council.

Township attorney Joshua Zielinski was asked by Councilwoman Buccieri if a stipulation could be made allow councilmembers to attend the council meetings virtually twice a year. Zielinski said that the council is free to enact any rules that it desires with respect to how it conducts its meetings, and how it allows people to participate. Zielinski went on to say that this year the governor repealed the health state of emergency, but he did not repeal the COVID state of emergency, which means meetings can remain hybrid. Zielinski said the decision to continue to hold hybrid meetings is up to council.

The council requested that Zielinski draw up an ordinance stating that all Vernon council members be required to attend the council meetings in person. The ordinance will also state that the audience will be able to attend virtually and be able to hear and participate in the public session of the meetings.

The council will discuss the ordinance at the next council meeting, when it is completed by the attorney.