NORTHAMPTON — The Northampton Planning Board is currently in the midst of considering adjustments to its current hybrid meeting and public comment rules.

According to Chair George Kohout, the Planning Board will review, edit and adopt a set of protocols at its next meeting on June 13 at 7 p.m. Kohout said that he and Planning and Sustainability Director Carolyn Misch will present a draft of the protocols to the board during the meeting.

Resident concerns

The board began discussing possible adjustments to its hybrid and public comment formats during its May 9 and 23 meetings after a group of over 40 residents sent a letter on May 21 to Misch, Kohout and Northampton Land Use Planner Nathan Chung asking for increased transparency and inclusivity at Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals meetings.

The letter was a follow up to a March 18 letter where the residents advocated for greater inclusivity, democracy, transparency and accountability from City Hall, particularly from the “offices, boards and commissions of the Northampton Department of Planning and Sustainability.”

“As stated in our March 18 letter, meetings generated by the various bodies of the Department of Planning and Sustainability contain momentous conversations that shape the city’s present and future,” read the residents’ letter. “We believe in our right to have a seat at the table, to be heard and treated with respect, and to have our voices reflected in the decisions that are made by the department and its entities.”

In the updated May letter, the residents make several requests including allowing remote public participants at Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals meetings to say their public comments themselves.

Currently at Planning Board meetings, only public participants who attend the meeting in person can speak their comments themselves. Those who attend on Zoom can only write their public comments in the meeting chat, and then Misch reads them to the board.

“I believe that [it] is important for the people on Zoom, if you have Zoom, to be able to speak themselves so that they have full representation, at least from their voices,” said Florence resident Jane Myers, who spoke in person during the May 9 Planning Board meeting and signed the residents’ letter.

Residents also request in the letter that there be better audio and visual support during Planning Board meetings and that the Planning Board and Zoning Board eliminate the rule that requires remote participants to submit their comments to the boards by 4 p.m. on the day of the meeting.

The letter also requests that the Planning Board be adequately staffed during its meetings. During the May 9 meeting, Misch said that the Planning Board and other boards in the city do not have the same amount of staff that City Council does.

“[The City Council] has specific staff just to run the audio and take minutes,” Misch said. “[The Planning Board] doesn’t have the same type of staff, so we’re doing everything.”

The residents in the letter referenced the final report from the Northampton City Council Select Committee to Study Barriers to Serving on City Boards and Commissions and said the changes they are proposing can mitigate some of those challenges identified in the committee’s findings.

“Maximized remote access participation for members of the public, and for Northampton Planning Board members, promotes equitable access to meetings and facilitates inclusivity and transparency in decision-making processes at Planning Board meetings,” the letter reads.

Planning Board reactions and next steps

According to Kohout, the Planning Board considered possible changes to its format during its May 9 and 23 meetings like allowing public Zoom participants to say their own comments live and allowing Planning Board members to participate and vote via Zoom.

Currently, Planning Board members can only participate and vote during the meeting in person.

Kohout also said that the board has considered setting a time limit for comments and using the “share screen” tool to allow Zoom participants to see presentations better.

“We discussed the pros and cons of a few different components of our hybrid meeting format,” Kohout told Reminder Publishing.

Member Chris Tait expressed interest in moving back to an all Zoom format when he spoke during the May 9 meeting.

“I like the idea of moving back to Zoom completely and not having an in-person component,” Tait said. “It’s a hardship for me to make it to these meetings in person sometimes. If everyone’s complaining about the representation on Zoom, let’s just go back to Zoom.”

Member Samuel Taylor said he likes the idea of moving back to a Zoom format but also added that he likes the human interaction of the hybrid meetings.

Member Janna White, meanwhile, said she does not have fond memories of the all Zoom meetings that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, arguing that it was harder to follow along and pay attention to what is going on.

“I agree, sometimes it is hard to show up here, but I feel like when I can show up, I’m a better and more engaged member when I’m here than when I’m online,” White said.

Member Melissa Fowler agreed with White’s sentiments and said that she does not have a problem with the public saying their comments in their own voice.

Kohout expressed support of staying in the hybrid format and allowing people to speak in person and at the “virtual podium.”

The meeting on June 13 will be on Zoom and in the City Council chambers.

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