During a tension-filled work session Tuesday, a discussion on permitting food trucks to operate more broadly in the wake of the coronavirus shutdown diverged into a quarrel on transparency and public access to meetings.
The meeting saw a town board member call Supervisor Scott Russell’s leadership into question, citing a lack of communication with fellow councilmembers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Urging action as the partial reopening of the economy begins, Councilwoman Sarah Nappa said the town must take proactive action to allow outdoor dining and urged the board to revisit the current food truck policy at a “make or break” moment for local businesses.
“We’re looking at the code right now,” Mr. Russell said, referencing talks on outdoor dining permits with Town Attorney Bill Duffy.
Ms. Nappa said those discussions should include the entire board. “That’s how a board works well together and how communication works,” she said. “That’s all I’m asking for.”
“It’s called research,” Mr. Russell shot back, arguing that all board members have access to the code, Mr. Duffy and other town departments for information. “As an independently elected official, that’s what I do, and I urge all of you to do that,” he said.
The pandemic has unearthed other issues raised by Ms. Nappa and councilman Jim Dinizio, who both say they’re unaware of conference calls the supervisor has held with local businesses to discuss reopening and they expressed frustrated that information is not passed along from regular calls with county and state officials.
“Right now we’re all running around like chickens with their heads chopped off, with absolutely no leadership whatsoever,” Mr. Dinizio said at the work session in a pointed criticism of Mr. Russell. “I can’t work in the dark,” he said, adding that he’d like to be included in those conversations.
Ms. Nappa said in an interview Thursday that there’s been a definite lack of communication. “We don’t ever hear the results of those conference calls,” she said.
Reached by phone Thursday, Mr. Russell said his daily conference calls typically involve other town supervisors as well as county officials and pointed to a lack of dialogue from his town board colleagues in his email inbox.
He said business owners reaching out with questions prompted the “informally organized” conference calls and encouraged board members to engage with the public.
“If you’re going to stand outside of a post office and ask for someone’s vote, reach out to them,” Mr. Russell said in an interview.
While neighboring municipalities have adapted to using virtual meeting platforms, Southold Town has faced some hurdles adjusting to socially-distanced meeting methods.
In March, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order in response to COVID-19 to temporarily suspend some requirements of the Open Meetings Law to limit in-person access. The order states that meetings held remotely must still be accessible to the public, recorded and later transcribed. The Southold Town Board has opted to continue socially distanced in-person meetings that are broadcast on the town website and channel 22.
Committees and other town departments are eager to get back to meeting, Mr. Dinizio said Thursday, but lack guidance from town officials on how to get going.
But Mr. Russell said implementing Zoom meetings was part of a reopening plan Mr. Dinizio, Ms. Doherty and Ms. Nappa were tasked with creating nearly a month ago. At a work session last month, officials agreed that virtual meetings could be tested first wth an advisory committee.
“They took no action on it until this week,” the supervisor said Thursday afternoon, adding that he also had not received any potential costs to consider. “These are duly elected officials who do not need my permission to move forward with a project.”
Any costs associated with the new platforms could be absorbed into the IT budget, he said.
While he has reservations about public hearings, Mr. Russell said he does not oppose using virtual meeting platforms for regular meetings. “No matter how hard you try, it will alienate some of the public from participating which doesn’t seem appropriate,” he said.
Many platforms offer a phone-in capability to allow those without the latest technology to participate, and Ms. Nappa noted the board can also accept written comments.
Board member Louisa Evans encouraged the board to hit reset at the work session. “Let’s stop pointing fingers and let’s move forward,” she said.
Following Tuesday’s work session, Ms. Nappa said she met informally with fellow board members and the town’s IT director to begin comparing costs for platforms including Google Meet, Zoom and GoToMeeting, which Greenport Village has been using.
“We are making moves on that,” Ms. Nappa said.