As part of an ongoing look at post-pandemic life and things that COVID-19 has changed forever, this week The Valley Reporter is exploring how the use of Zoom (and other digital meeting platforms) has changed how town governments, nonprofits and other community organizations are able to meet and conduct business and also how community members have participated.
Trevor Lashua, Waitsfield town administrator, said that the what the select board has seen is different people participating as a result of different access. Early last summer the town bought Meeting Owl Pro, a device that allows a panoramic view of the room with a camera and microphone that move automatically to find the person who is talking.
“We’ll likely keep some component of this specifically to make meetings that accessible for people to attend or drop in for a specific topic,” he said earlier this week as he was preparing a brief presentation on Zoom etiquette and the ground rules for the town’s pre-Town Meeting on March 1.
Making sure that people put their name on their Zoom account is one way to comply with open meeting laws, and Lashua, at this week’s meeting, instructed people in how to do that, how to raise their hands with questions and how to use the chat function.
Zoom meetings, he said “cause us to be a little bit more deliberate than if we were in a room.”
Liza Walker, chair of the Mad River Valley Rec District Board, said there were definitely plus to Zoom meetings. They have allowed her board to meet and do its work and more board members were able to consistently participate without need to leave their homes and find babysitters, etc.
She said that the board was Zoom-bombed at least twice, requiring her to end those calls and send invitations to a new call, which hadn’t been properly publicly warned.
“In some ways, though, people can be more shy or reluctant to show themselves. Normally, at a public meeting you show up and you’re in a room. This way people can voyeuristically watch. Our board meetings have been good because people show up and show their faces. That’s how Zoom works best – if people show their faces,” she said, adding that there is Zoom etiquette and showing one’s face is part of it.
The rec district will likely return to in-person meetings when the pandemic is over, Walker added.
“We have been and still are using Zoom meetings for all of our meetings. It has been really useful. They’re more convenient than meeting in person,” said Joshua Schwartz of the Mad River Valley Planning District (MRVPD).
While MRVPD members haven’t talked about their long-term meeting plan, Schwartz says using Zoom has been a positive experience that the hopes to continue. “At some point we will have in-person meetings again,” he said, postulating that when the MRVPD goes back to in-person meetings, it may even attempt a hybrid Zoom/in-person approach.
“We are trying to balance having effective meetings and being accessible to the public,” he said. “With Zoom, it’s been easier to record our meetings and make them available.” Schwartz noticed that more people have been participating in the MRVPD’s digital meetings.
“There has been more engagement.” he said. One reason for this increase in engagement, Schwartz suggested, is that people from outside of The Valley have an easier time engaging through a digital platform.
Additionally, meeting over Zoom has made it easier for the MRVPD to accommodate special presentations from outside experts.
Schwartz says he hasn’t run into any technical difficulties sharing information over Zoom, or making presentations, since Zoom has a screen-share feature that makes it easy to give slideshow presentations or review documents. “We’ve been able to do the screen share for presentations,” he said. “And with documents, before I used to hand out paper copies for people to take home. Now I just email the documents.”
Mad River Valley Housing Coalition (MRVHC) president Karl Klein has also discovered benefits of digital meetings. “It makes our meetings a lot easier to access,” he said.
Klein said digital meetings have not reduced the quality of MRVHC meetings. “I don’t find any lack. As long as I can see a face and the communication is both vocal and visual, it’s good,” he said.
The MRVHC also saw great attendance at its several digital events. “We had a few presentations planned that we were going to do in person. Rather than canceling them, we did it as a Zoom online forum. We got really good attendance,” said Klein.
Klein hopes Zoom meetings will continue for the MRVHC beyond the pandemic. “I’d like to see housing coalition meetings keep happening over Zoom. We will keep putting out meetings out in a virtual fashion so we can increase accessibility. There’s no reason not to,” said Klein. “Participation, for the housing coalition, is important. Making it easier for members to come makes all the difference.”
Klein is also president of the Mad River Valley Rotary Club. He’s noticed some unique benefits of using digital meetings for this club in particular. “In Rotary, many members don’t live in The Valley year-round,” said Klein. ‘Having virtual meetings allows our remote members to still be part of the group,” he said. For instance, he noted that many members who go south for the winter are staying active in the club and attending more meetings than ever before.
Sara Gallet, another Mad River Valley Rotarian, has also enjoyed Zoom meetings. However, she doesn’t want the club to stay digital forever. “As soon as we get the green light, we are going to go back to our breakfast meetings and in-person meetings with members,” said Gallet.
Gallet has also used the digitization of Rotary meetings as an opportunity to pop into different Rotary meetings in different places. “I’ve used Zoom to take advantage of going to different Rotary’s in Florida,” she said.
CHAMBER OF COMMERCE
Ana Dan, president of the Mad River Valley Chamber of Commerce Board, said digital meetings were working well for the chamber because people can call in from anywhere.
“Long term I can see having Zoom meetings as well as in-person meetings again. That’s an upside,” she said.
She echoed what several others said about how people have to learn how to interact each other on Zoom because when people interrupt for talk over each other, the platform doesn’t work. In-person meetings have a more natural conversational flow.