TUSTEN, NY — The August 10 meeting of the Tusten Town Board took place in a tightly packed room. Over 20 people showed up in the basement of the town hall to give their thoughts on the …
TUSTEN, NY — The August 10 meeting of the Tusten Town Board took place in a tightly packed room. Over 20 people showed up in the basement of the town hall to give their thoughts on the month’s agenda.
It was a proposed revision to the town’s livestream meeting policy—a policy that could mean that no one would have to show up at all—which drew the most attention.
The board began livestreaming its meetings and offering public participation via Zoom at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, back in April 2020. With vaccination rates rising and with COVID-19 in decline, town board meetings have opened back up for in-person attendance.
The in-person attendees at the August 10 meeting wanted to ensure that livestreaming would continue, even as in-person meetings resume.
Some public comment centered on the rise of the delta variant of COVID-19, and the resultant rise in cases. Having the option for online attendance would make everyone safer, said attendees.
“This town board has taken an oath to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public,” said former town board member Brandi Merolla. Not having Zoom meetings went against that oath. “That’s inexcusable.”
Other comments looked more generally at online access as a way of promoting open, fair and accessible government. Sometimes people were traveling, said attendees, or taking care of ill relatives, and couldn’t attend the meeting in person.
“Having no Zoom really discriminates against people who can’t participate any other way,” said Star Hesse.
Public comments focused as well on the possibility that future meetings might not allow online participants to comment, even if they were livestreamed.
Having to attend in person to comment put people’s health at risk, said attendees. Not having the option for public comments on Zoom meetings would function essentially as a “gag order” on the public’s ability to comment on the proceedings of government.
The board took public comments into consideration when it moved to discuss the proposed livestreaming law.
The law as initially drafted held that board meetings would be streamed live, and that recordings would be posted within 48 hours. It did not allow for comments over Zoom; attendees would need to be in-person to comment, or they would have to submit written comments ahead of time.
“It’s not that people are being muzzled by any means,” said town supervisor Ben Johnson. He said that there were technical difficulties that made it hard to allow for public comments over Zoom, including people forgetting to mute, people being unable to hear, and a lack of proper equipment in the town hall.
Other members of the board weren’t convinced. If it is possible to allow for public comment online, they said, the board should do so.
The board ultimately passed a revised version of the draft law, one which allowed for public comment over Zoom.
The board also discussed whether to allow marijuana dispensaries and smoking lounges within the town.
Town councilmember Jane Luchsinger said she was in favor of allowing them. There were a lot of people around Tusten who used marijuana, she said. Letting them buy from regulated dispensaries would be safer than making them buy from the current black market.
Other members of the board held different views.
Councilmember Bruce Gettel said he was dead-set against it. People would come from outside the town for dispensaries, he said, people “who you don’t want in town.”
Councilmember Alred Smith agreed: “I wouldn’t want to see anything happen to a good town.”
The board decided to draft a law opting out of the state’s legalization of dispensaries and smoking lounges, banning it within Tusten. It will officially propose the law at its September 14 meeting, and will look to pass it after a public hearing on October 12.
The board can choose not to adopt the law if public sentiment at the meeting is against it, said town attorney Ken Klein. If it decides to adopt the law against public sentiment, it would be subject to a permissive referendum.
“And that’s how government works,” said Luchsinger.
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