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BEAUFORT — Despite some recent disruptions, Beaufort town boards and the governing commission will continue meeting virtually, likely through the end of the year.
Town commissioners, who have been reviewing coronavirus safety measures at least twice a month, opted to continue meeting via Zoom until such time as additional equipment – ordered with federal pandemic recovery funds to outfit the train depot on Broad Street for remote participation – is installed. That tech isn’t expected to be delivered until after Christmas.
In the meantime, meeting in the depot with physical distancing would mean fewer members of the public could attend, and if streamed virtually from there, those participants couldn’t interact.
“I’m disappointed we can’t get the equipment sooner, because I would think we need to start back, but I think the participation of the citizens is very important,” Commissioner John Hagle said as the commission debated the matter during a virtual work session Monday over Zoom.
Town manager John Day said without the hybrid equipment, participation would be “severely limited,” especially in the wake of increased public participation since the pandemic.
“I just don’t want to diminish any opportunity for our citizens to have access to our meetings,” Commissioner Sharon Harker said.
The ruling on remaining virtual holds true not just for the commission, but also for the town’s volunteer boards that use the train depot as a meeting venue. One committee, the harbor and waterways master plan advisory committee, was given permission to meet virtually using hybrid equipment at Beaufort Hotel. A member of that committee, Bucky Oliver, is the developer of the hotel and offered its use for the group.
Continuing to meet virtually presents its challenges, however. In September, the planning board delayed a decision following public hearing for a rezoning after the town’s Zoom license capped attendance at 100 people. Individuals who reportedly wished to view the meeting could not. In recent weeks, at least two meetings, including Monday’s work session, have been interrupted by attendees unmuting to shout vulgarities. In Monday’s case, individuals overwrote a PowerPoint presentation by drawing crude genitalia over a staff member’s slides.
In response to a slate of questions from the News-Times about the incidents and the steps the town is taking to address the issues, public information officer Rachel Johnson said Beaufort “takes cyber security seriously.”
“The Town has increased its Zoom capacity and is encouraged by the amount of public participation that the Zoom platform has the capacity to accommodate. Attendance at all board meetings has more than doubled since moving to the Zoom platform during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she stated, in part. “… While we are disappointed by the disruptive behavior, we continue to be encouraged by the level of public participation and look forward to continuing to have increasing dialogue with our citizens.”
The News-Times also requested financial information regarding how much the town has spent on Zoom licenses and related materials to support virtual meetings, as well as an update on the price of the train depot’s hybrid meeting upfit. That was initially approved at around $19,500.
Other local government bodies in Carteret County have taken a mixed approach to the return to in-person meetings.
In other news at Monday’s meeting, Beaufort commissioners:
· Heard project updates from staff.
· Approved by 4-1 vote revoking an order of demolition for 400 Pollock St. concurrent with the closing to a new owner.
· Reviewed a selection of items to appear on the Monday, Nov. 8 regular agenda.
· Took no action following a closed session to discuss a personnel manner, according to Mr. Day.
Contact Jackie Starkey at 252-726-7081, ext. 225; email [email protected]; or follow on Twitter @jackieccnt.
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