RTM Moderator and Moderator Pro Tempore Discuss Future of Remote Meetings

Submitted by Thomas Byrne, RTM Moderator and Alexis Voulgaris, Moderator Pro Tempore

RTM leadership strongly believes that a continuation of remote meetings would, on the whole, negatively affect the legislative process in Greenwich. We are grateful to have been able to continue exercising our legislative responsibilities in the face of enforced isolation. But when all restrictions are lifted, we believe the full RTM meetings should be held in person with no remote participation.

We recognize there are positive aspects to remote meetings, and that those positives might actually outweigh the negatives for meetings of groups much smaller than the full RTM, including RTM district and committee meetings, as well as other Town boards and commissions. For the reasons set forth below, we encourage our members to support efforts to return to in-person meetings at the full RTM meeting when it is safe to do so.

The large size of the RTM is an asset to the Town of Greenwich. Having 230 openings every election creates a low entry barrier, attracting individuals of diverse talents who would otherwise not get involved in the political process. In order to fill all of those positions, we have benefited from many members returning for multiple terms because they have found the work of the RTM to be rewarding and enjoyable. Meeting remotely in the past year has changed that experience.

Where our meeting average used to be 2.5 hours prior to going remote, we now routinely go past midnight, averaging over four hours.

Many members are complaining of burnout and are responding by declaring that either they will not return or will use the meeting time to do other productive work while ostensibly still logged in to the meeting.

The members of one of our districts are discussing future rule changes to cut down on remote meeting time by arbitrarily limiting the total time we debate controversial items to one hour. We have been informed that a
nearby RTM has had no public participation in debate since beginning remote meetings.

We can understand why individual members prefer to be able to give their attention elsewhere during a meeting (take care of children or other family, enjoy some form of entertainment — watch sports, movies, etc. — or any number of other activities), but we don’t believe providing an opportunity for distractions is a benefit to good legislative process.

The RTM prides itself on being one of the greatest marketplaces of ideas and free expression in Greenwich and in Connecticut. But when the RTM engages in such full discussion of the items before it, we need
our members to be focused on what a speaker is saying. There is an exponentially greater chance that a member is focused on the proceedings when present in person with little or no other distractions.

Members have the added incentive to focus when in person because they all have equal ability to respond in the moment to anything that occurs. The remote meeting by necessity creates different classes of participants. The Town’s cybersecurity consultants require use of the Zoom webinar, which divides participants into “panelists” (who have control over microphone and video) and “attendees’ (who are muted with no video control). This two-tiered system is anti-democratic, and fosters further disenchantment with an individual’s experience on the RTM.

There is no question that the remote meeting has resulted in increased attendance. That is a good thing in general, but even that issue needs further consideration. There is no question that many Town residents have second homes outside of Town and have left Greenwich during this pandemic. Some of those who now reside out of Town (not changing legal residence but nevertheless out of Town for extended periods) are on the RTM. Do we really want to enable participation in the important decisions that affect those actually present in Greenwich by individuals who have left Town for extended periods? RTM leadership believes the ability to cast a vote on issues before the RTM should be exercised by those who are present in Greenwich when the vote is taken.

Some who advocate for a continuation of remote meetings after the emergency ends point to “increased participation” as a major benefit. A look at the record suggests no real difference in participation at in-person versus remote meetings. In 2019, we debated controversial proposed resolutions involving tolls in Connecticut and the need for a fire station in northwest Greenwich.

Each item had 40-plus speakers, including 26 non-RTM members taking part. In our remote environment, we had considerable debate on the proposed tipping ordinance, on funding for the public schools and on police on Greenwich Ave. Each of those had fewer speakers (most was 42 for school funding), with non-members ranging from 7 to 22 (again on school funding). So there has been no great difference in the number of speakers on controversial items.

There can be no reasonable dispute that the human connection between members suffers in the remote environment. The close collaboration and personal exchanges between civic minded individuals interested in bettering their Town that occur when we meet in person are not the same when the gathering is only via an impersonal virtual platform.

Finally, those not involved in running a virtual meeting of 230-plus individuals (the number of participants approached 500 for the June 2020 meeting) likely do not understand all that goes into making such a meeting work. Our Moderator Pro Tem leads a team of volunteers to make these meetings go, with some working more than 40 hours per week in the weeks leading up to a meeting, creating and managing the online speaker lists and the PowerPoint slides for every conceivable motion. Paid consultants are now required to manage the virtual platform during the meeting, requiring prep meetings before every meeting. Such efforts would be required for the so-called hybrid meeting (in-person and remote option). Relying on such tremendous effort and generosity by volunteers is imply not a sustainable model.

We hope that our members will understand the differences between meeting remotely in small district and committee groups versus meeting in full for the actual RTM meetings. We most strongly recommend returning to in person full RTM meetings at the earliest safe time.

Thomas J. Byrne, RTM Moderator
Alexis Voulgaris, Moderator Pro Tempore