Municipal operations in Waterbury are going back to normal, sort of. At a Waterbury Select Board meeting on June 20, town manager Bill Shepeluk announced a plan to allow all municipal employees to return to normal work hours on August 3, 2020.
With the onset of the coronavirus in March, many town employees were laid off, including half of the road crew. Now, the transition back to a normal work schedule is already underway. All eight members of the Waterbury road crew came back to part-time work on July 5, and Shepeluk wants them to move back to a full-time schedule on August 3.
“I did tell all the employees back when I had to lay them off that my plan was for them to come back and work normal hours in 2020,” said Shepeluk, explaining the rationale for bringing workers back sooner rather than later. However, he also warned that the employee’s employment status is subject to change again in 2021, depending on the town’s financial situation. “When we start building the budget for 2021, there’s no guarantee about anything,” said Shepeluk.
In terms of public access, right now the municipal office is open by appointment only to professionals only (lawyers, paralegals, engineers, etc.). On August 3, Shepeluk plans to open the municipal building to the public.
Still, the municipal building won’t be “open” in the precoronavirus sense. Members of the public can only enter the building if they have an appointment. “We want to limit the amount of people that can come inside,” said Shepeluk, keeping in mind the ominous reality of the pandemic.
KEEP MEETING REMOTELY
One aspect of municipal operations won’t be returning to normal, however. Shepeluk proposed that all boards and committees (the select board, the planning commission, the development review board, etc.) keep meeting remotely until October at the earliest.
“We’ve had up to 25 people attend a meeting over Zoom, and it was effective,” said Shepeluk, explaining that remote meetings are more convenient for members of the public and offer more opportunities for participation with no technological difficulties. Shepeluk acknowledged that some town officials were eager to meet in person again but maintained his stance on the value of remote meetings. “Board members would like to meet in person, but for now, we’ll keep it remote because we can do it effectively by Zoom and because the public finds Zoom more effective.”
Another reason to continue meeting remotely, according to Shepeluk, is the increased virus transmission risk associated with the start of school. “In five weeks, school is going to start. That means board members, staff and members of the public in general are going to be interacting with a whole new class of people,” said Shepeluk. Before Waterbury goes back to in-person meetings, Shepeluk said, “Let’s see what happens with school.”
Shepeluk’s remote meeting proposal also received backlash. At the meeting, Katlya d’Angelo of the Waterbury Planning Commission said that doing planning commission work remotely on Zoom “is not possible.” Planning commission members spend much of their time going through long documents and analyzing maps, which is difficult to do over Zoom. “Can you allow in-person meetings sooner rather than later?” asked d’Angelo.
Katlya d’Angelo’s comments prompted a conversation about hybrid meetings (meetings with both in-person and remote access). Shepeluk suspects that even when board members return to meeting in person again, the public will demand remote access. He acknowledged that the town would have to invest in new technology to make hybrid meetings a reality. “The hybrid meeting we tried was the most difficult of all the remote meetings that we’ve had,” said Shepeluk about a time when the town tried a hybrid meeting in which there were issues with echoes, reverberations and speaker identification.
Select board chair Chris Viens spoke in favor of looking into better hybrid meeting technology; for example, a swiveling camera that automatically turns to whoever is speaking. “This seems to be the wave of the future,” said Viens, who acknowledged that although the coronavirus pandemic has done much harm, it has also “exposed new opportunities to make us more efficient.”