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ROCKLAND, Maine ― There was no road map in place for how cities and towns should operate when the COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally altered governmental operations in Maine. But it was critical for them to adapt in order to serve Mainers at the local level.
“Like all of us right now, [government officials] are dealing with a present- and a near term-future that we never envisioned we’d be dealing with,” Maine Municipal Association Communications and Educational Services Director Eric Conrad said. “The old way of everyone getting in a meeting room — sitting 3 feet apart from each other — that’s not only not safe anymore, it’s not legal.”
In the month since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Maine, many town halls have closed their doors to the public, operating on a skeleton crew inside to process general assistance claims, licensing applications and building permits, among other essential functions.
City councilors and elected officials across Maine have also adapted — many are conducting public meetings through video meeting platforms, such as Zoom.
The meetings offer an interesting — if not slightly awkward — opportunity to see city officials in a new light, as they participate in meetings from corners of their homes with their personal lives going on behind them.
But the ability to host public meetings — where officials give final approval before funding big-ticket projects or crafting new laws — can vary from town to town based on tech savviness.
“A lot of our members are quickly trying to adjust on the fly to do these really important and even mandated tasks that they have to do,” Conrad said. “We’re all figuring it out.
In Rockland, council meetings have been conducted via Zoom since March 30. City Manager Tom Luttrell said the switch was a relatively easy transition thanks to assistance from the city’s IT consultant, and the fact all councilors were wired and connected.
If the council wasn’t able to meet, Rockland would have missed a time-sensitive opportunity to sign onto a solar-power project that is estimated to power 85 percent of the city’s municipal needs and save the town nearly $3.5 million over 20 years. City councilors approved the contract with ReVision Energy this week on their Zoom call.
Officials in Bangor also are relying on Zoom to conduct city business. Councilor Gretchen Schaefer, who is an instructional technologist at Husson University, said being able to conduct meetings remotely allows the city to address timely issues that were in motion before the pandemic hit, including a plan to transition to automated trash removal this summer and for several paving projects.
“We need to be planning for the other side of this and beyond,” Schaefer said. “We can’t just sign over these contracts without the council approving them.”
But some of Maine’s smaller towns might be facing more barriers when it comes to making remote government work. In Thomaston, the selectboard has been holding meetings via Zoom, but is not casting any votes since one member of the board cannot participate because he does not have access to the technology at home.
With Thomaston having an older population, Town Manager Kara George said it also can be difficult for the public to tap into the town’s online services.
An order from Gov. Janet Mills will allow Thomaston and other municipalities and schools in Maine to operate under their current budgets for now. Like many Maine towns, Thomaston relies on a gathering of residents at its annual town meeting in June before approving a spending plan — something that is just not possible under pandemic restrictions.
“We’re doing the best we can under the circumstances. It’s a really surreal situation we’re in,” George said.
Municipal officials who are relying on streaming services to conduct meetings are having to find ways to make them open to the public without exposing them to the risk of being “Zoom-bombed.” An unknown user hijacked a Bath City Council Zoom meeting earlier this month and displayed pornography and foul language on the public screen before councilors were forced to abruptly terminate the call.
Schaefer, whose role at Husson is to support the faculty in implementing online instruction, said Bangor has implemented a few measures to prevent this from happening, including making meetings private and requiring members of the public to request the meeting identification number and password. Rockland is also undertaking these steps.
“A lot of the issues of Zoom-bombing are happening when people just open their meeting to anyone. We do have a few guardrails set up to prevent any abuse,” Schaefer said.
Outside of the immediate day-to-day business, Conrad said that the potential impact that the pandemic will have on municipal revenue is on the minds of many town and city officials.
But for now, that’s simply an unknown.
“One of the biggest things on the horizon is what the revenue picture is going to look like. What are local property taxes going to look like? What is the revenue sharing [with the state] going to look like,” Conrad said. “There is no real answer yet. We’re all wondering how it is going to sake out.”
Watch: Why the Maine CDC breaks down coronavirus cases by county, not town