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Northampton City Council Votes To Stay Remote In Response To Delta Variant

The Council also signaled support for a state housing bill at August’s meeting.

By Mike Hanson

In their August 19th meeting, following months of hinting at the issue, the Northampton City Council finally voted to continue meeting remotely until at least the beginning of the next session in January in response to the current wave of Delta variant Covid cases. In discussion preceding the unanimous vote, councilors expressed concern at the prospect of meeting in person, even with hybrid accommodation that would still allow members of the public to participate remotely. Every councilor that spoke during discussion made mention of or alluded to the rising Delta variant numbers and the Board of Health mask mandate as clear indicators that meeting in person was not in the public interest, nor in the interest of the councilors. During public comment, Hampshire county resident Ezekiel Baskin voiced a similar concern, calling continued remote meetings “the safest option moving forward.”

Northampton Open Media, which manages streaming of the City Council meetings, was tasked with creating a new format to present the meetings online should they resume in City Council chambers under new health guidelines. Al Williams, the executive director at Northampton Open Media was recognized by the council to talk about the preparations that had been made to facilitate a hybrid meeting. According to Williams, the proposed format would allow a streaming participant to see the entire Council Chambers through a center camera, and a Zoom participant to share audio while having the same perspective.  

“We’re ready to go hybrid whenever the council wants to do that. We are prepared to do that and we know how it is going to work,” said Williams. Williams also confirmed the meeting would have to be managed on Zoom, regardless of the in-person attendance of Council members, and that there would be a screen for councilors and the public in council chambers to see anyone participating in the meeting on Zoom. Prior to the pandemic, there was no logistical way for people not present in the Council Chambers to be recognized by City Council during public comment. While Twitch and Youtube streaming have been one-way avenues to satisfy open meeting law, it seems likely that the new hybrid format could be used in the future to allow public participation.  

For their part, Councilors echoed Baskin’s comments during discussion. “We now know that we have the means to do a hybrid version, but the fact is that things right now [seem to warrant] a new urgency, a new level of stress that’s related to the Delta variant,” Councilor Bill Dwight (At-Large) said. Councilor Michael Quinalan (Ward 1) added that he felt it important to “respect the science and stay remote.” The Council will again have the opportunity to consider a different meeting format when their new session begins in January.

Housing resolution

During public comment, former Northampton City Councilor Pamela Schwartz, currently a director of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homlessness, spoke in support of a resolution sponsored by Councilors Quinlan, Alex Jarrett (Ward 5), and  John Thorpe (Ward 4) endorsing a state bill aimed at preventing evictions and foreclosures. “I just really want to applaud the consideration of this, urge you to adopt it unanimously as a council, urge it to go through two readings because time is of the essence right now,” said Schwartz. “We have over 2,000, close to 3,000, eviction filings in Western Mass alone with over 200 in Hampshire County… with not enough protections to protect against these evictions and foreclosures,” she continued. 

“An Act to Prevent COVID-19 Evictions and Foreclosures and Promote an Equitable Housing Recovery” would create a new set of eviction protections and streamline the allocation of the over $800 million in housing assistance money provided by the federal government. According to the resolution, only a fraction of the money allocated has reached the people most eligible statewide. The resolution also points out that WayFinders, the largest administrator of rental assistance in Western Massachusetts, reports receiving 400 to 500 applications for rental assistance per week, or almost 100 a day with an application processing time of about four to five weeks. 

Other councilors lauded the resolution during discussion.“I’m very honored to support this resolution,” said Councilor Marianne Labarge (Ward 6). “No family… deserves to lose their home when there’s $842 million sitting in the pot.” Councilor Rachel Maiore (Ward 7) added that she appreciated that “there’s kind of a nod to the future of ‘how do we get out of this.’” The Council passed the resolution unanimously in two readings.

Other business

Leeds’s Hotel Bridge construction project received an allocation of funds from a state infrastructure bill to go towards bidding contracts to complete needed improvements. President of the Leeds Civic Association Pennington Geis noted this in public comment the historical importance of the project, and the anticipated local impact of a longtime landmark. 

“You have an item about the hotel bridge on your agenda tonight and while I realize that is merely transferring money into that account, which is sort of a routine thing,” Geis said. “I want to use it as an opportunity to say thank you… People who have grown up here are so excited that this bridge is going to be open again.” Having been a pedestrian-only bridge for years, the bridge is being updated to allow bicycle access as well.

An order to establish a municipal light plant was submitted by Councilor Dwight and Mayor Narkewicz to be on the ballot for the upcoming local elections, an important step for the Mayor’s goal of establishing municipal broadband. Sometimes known as municipal utilities, MLPs are publicly owned utility systems that are run by a town government rather than a private corporation. In order for this organization of infrastructure to be enacted in Northampton, as it has in 41 other municipalities in the state, a majority of voters in the city must ratify the order. The order also needs authorization in two separate fiscal years by the city Council, which was done in Fiscal year 2020 and 2021. A yes vote on the ballot would authorize but not require the city to establish an MLP in Northampton, while a no vote would prohibit the city from establishing an MLP. The vote was unanimous to put the order on the ballot.

Mike Hanson lives in Northampton.

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