STAMFORD – City lawmakers navigating virtual government have landed on a complication.
They’re debating whether they should have to turn on their computer cameras when they speak or vote during public meetings, conducted by Zoom since coronavirus struck two years ago.
The question is whether citizens watching government in action on their home computers should see members of the Board of Representatives as they deliberate and decide on the laws, policies, tax hikes, expenditures, appointments and other matters that govern Stamford life.
Or is hearing representatives enough?
“We talk a lot about transparency and making sure the public understands what we are talking about,” city Rep. Susan Nabel, a District 20 Democrat, said during the January meeting of the board’s Legislative & Rules Committee.
But representatives are camera-shy, Nabel said. During meetings of all 40 board members, only about 10 are typically on screen, she said.
“We owe it to the public,” Nabel said. “When we are voting and speaking, our cameras should be on so they can see us.”
Nabel’s fellow committee member, city Rep. Lindsey Miller, a Democrat from District 7, submitted the proposal with her. He pointed out that, of the 18 representatives taking part in the committee meeting, only four or five ever appeared on screen.
City business should be on camera, Miller said.
“In order to vote, one should be seen,” he said.
City Rep. Jonathan Jacobson, a District 12 Democrat, agreed.
“From a legal aspect, I’m surprised it’s not already a requirement,” said Jacobson, an attorney. “As local leaders and elected officials … the public needs to see who is saying what.”
He was the last one to speak in favor of the proposal.
Other representatives said they oppose it for myriad reasons – privacy, safety, economic inequity, family inconvenience, equipment costs, meeting by phone, and eating while meeting.
“I have an older computer. Half the time the camera works, half the time it doesn’t,” said city Rep. Sean Boeger, a District 15 Democrat. “If we are going to put this onus on people, the city should supply us with equipment. Some of us might have to purchase equipment in order to participate in the democratic process.”
City representatives are unpaid elected officials. They come from many economic backgrounds, said city Rep. Jeff Stella, a District 9 Democrat.
“One person may have a home office the size of another person’s apartment. They may not want that to be seen during meetings,” which are recorded and posted on the city’s website, Stella said. “People shouldn’t be shamed because they don’t have the means that other people have.”
There’s another problem, said Stella, a former New York Police Department detective.
“I’m concerned about safeguarding the board. We see on television how elected officials are being harassed and even assaulted all over the country,” Stella said. “I have two minor children. Sometimes they come into the room. You may have personal effects that could identify your family. That gets on camera. I don’t want to be in a position where I could put my family in harm’s way.”
Living situations often don’t lend themselves to live video, said city Rep. Megan Cottrell, a 4th District Democrat. Sometimes representatives end their work day just in time to join the board, and eat dinner during the meeting.
“I hear from the public that they don’t appreciate watching (representatives) eat during public meetings,” Cottrell said.
Meetings often go late into the night, and representatives who don’t have a home office sometimes keep family members awake, she said.
“Because of that, some people participate in meetings from their car, using a phone. That makes it hard to get yourself on camera,” Cottrell said.
City Rep. Nina Sherwood, an 8th District Democrat, said a city attorney met with board members last year to help them understand how to comply with state regulations for virtual public meetings.
“He said that to vote you have to be heard,” not seen, Sherwood said.
Gov. Ned Lamont issued an order during the pandemic requiring that speakers at public meetings state their name and title each time they talk. It also requires that citizens be able to view or listen to meetings in real time; that meetings be recorded and posted on the city’s website within seven days; and that notices and agendas for meetings be posted with instructions for how citizens can watch them.
Facetime isn’t required, Sherwood said.
“We volunteer to represent people, not to let people into our homes, Sherwood said. “I hope this proposal does not pass.”
It didn’t, but just barely. Four committee members voted for it and five against. The full board will decide whether to follow suit when it meets at 8 p.m. Monday.
The meeting is available by computer or tablet at https://us02web.zoom.us/j/81470541826 or at www.zoom.com using Webinar ID 814 7054 1826. Join by smartphone at 1-646-558-8656, Webinar ID 814 7054 1826.