TREMONT — Knowing there is sure to be a large crowd for an upcoming public hearing regarding an application for a 55-site glampground, members of the Planning Board attempted to schedule it via Zoom until an attorney pointed out there needed to be a reason to do so.
At the Planning Board meeting Tuesday, attorney Andrew Hamilton advised the board to make a motion that meeting in person would be impractical due to the rise in cases of the COVID-19 delta variant. That motion passed unanimously. Making such a motion was possible because members of the Planning Board voted in favor of adopting a remote participation policy during a recent meeting. The policy gives the board the option to meet remotely if or when necessary.
Despite the recent rise in COVID-19 cases due to the delta variant, public boards cannot automatically resort to having a meeting online unless they have adopted a policy to do so. Without adopting such a policy, remote participation by a member of a board is illegal.
During Gov. Janet Mills’s state of emergency, the Legislature passed an amendment to the Freedom of Access Act to allow remote meetings to take place as long as it was possible for members of a board or committee, as well as members of the public, to participate fully. Shortly before the state of emergency ended on June 30, the Legislature created another amendment, 1 M.R.S. 403B, to allow public boards and committees to continue to have the option of meeting remotely when necessary.
Under the new law, board members are expected to be physically present for meetings. They are allowed to attend board meetings remotely in the case of an emergency or an urgent issue that requires the board itself to meet remotely. An illness or other factors that lead to a temporary absence and cause a board member significant difficulties in traveling to a meeting are also reasons for remote participation. Whatever methods are made available for a board member to participate must also be made available to members of the public.
To be able to participate remotely, each board or committee must adopt a remote participation policy. Towns can draw up their own policy or, as in the case in Southwest Harbor, create one using a template sent out by the Maine Municipal Association. A public hearing must be held prior to voting on whether to adopt the policy.