By having their remote access to council meetings stymied, Common Council members are raising concerns on the city’s protocols in providing a safe meeting environment during the pandemic.
The Common Council has been conducting virtual meetings since the statewide shutdown in late March and residents have been calling in through teleconference to participate in public comment. Council members have also been remotely dialing in to discuss and vote on items. But according to Alderman Aram Ayalon, that option has been taken away since the council’s July 8 meeting and it happened again during Wednesday’s meeting.
“I had no idea that anything was going to change,” said Ayalon, 65. “Given my age and given the fact that it’s not clear if there would be social distancing in the council chambers, I didn’t want to take the chance. Per state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for reducing the spread of covid-19, avoiding indoor large gatherings should be used as much as possible.
“I see this move as discriminatory against older alderpersons and those who have medical issues as well as those with close relatives who are medically vulnerable. This city action especially affects our alderpersons of color.”
During July’s meeting, Aldermen Colin Osborn and Richard Reyes and Alderwoman Iris Sanchez were absent not by choice, but rather taken by surprise they could no longer call into the meetings.
“Just like from previous meetings, I called in thinking it was a remote meeting. Then I realized I was muted. No one could hear my comments, I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t vote, so I just hung up and left,” said Reyes, 68. “Then Wednesday’s meeting was coming up so I started asking on Monday ‘what’s the deal with remote access’ and was told by the aldermen leadership that they were working on it. But when meeting time came around, no one said anything.”
Reyes, along with Ayalon, Sanchez and Alderman Kris Rutkowski were absent during Wednesday’s meeting.
Gov. Ned Lamont issued an executive order due to the pandemic that suspended in-person open meeting requirements. It permits any public agency to the extent necessary to meet and “to hold such meetings or proceedings remotely by conference call, videoconference or other technology.”
All of the governor’s executive orders are slated to expire in September. With roughly a month to go, Justin Dorsey, chief of staff for Mayor Erin Stewart’s Office, said when the council first started the virtual meetings, no public groups over five people were allowed.
In June, the governor changed the group limit to 25 people and Dorsey said with public members not allowed in and having just the council with few staff, the mayor decided mid-June that in-person meetings were back in effect. The information was conveyed to council leadership on both sides of the aisle, he said.
“We were asked if we could make accommodations for those who weren’t comfortable with that and we said yes. Two exceptions were made, one was the second meeting in June and the other was the July meeting,” Dorsey said. “I know there were call-in issues but from our end, the phones were on and it showed the calls came in but for some reason they weren’t able to communicate. If any council member still doesn’t feel comfortable because the desks are really close to each other, we will have the chamber spread out so they’re able to participate that way.”
Reyes said they were never given a reason by the city for stopping remote access and it is a huge concern for him because not only is he in the high-risk age bracket, he lives with his wife who is 65 years old and diabetic.
“I’m not willing to sit anywhere for a lengthy period of time without people really adhering to social distancing rules and wearing masks,” he said. “I can’t take that risk and I don’t understand why New Britain is going the opposite of what everyone else is doing. The mayor seems to think the pandemic is over and that’s not her decision to make.”
After July’s meeting, Ayalon filed a complaint with the state Freedom of Information Commission against Stewart, citing that the meeting was illegal because council members couldn’t participate.
“I’m disheartened because this has never happened to me before. I’ve never had a situation that prevented me from participating,” he said, stating he has asked the commission to prioritize this case and got an answer that they will try to do so.
“We were all voted by residents and have the right to make our voices heard,” Ayalon said. “We attempted to do that in good conscience, but it didn’t happen. There needs to be a bipartisan agreement on procedures or this will happen again.”
After the story was posted online at NewBritainHerald.com, Stewart reached out and said no alderperson has contacted her office asking for an accommodation. “I have not received one call from any alderperson quoted asking for an accommodation due to safety concerns,” she said.
Contact Catherine Shen at firstname.lastname@example.org