HARVARD — For as long as most residents can remember, public meetings have been posted in a glass-enclosed case on the front porch at Town Hall. Now, that tradition has been discontinued in favor of the town website, which operates under a relatively new system, aptly called “Virtual Town Hall.”
The change had already happened when the selectmen mentioned it at their meeting late October meeting. Asked whether postings could be in both places, to accommodate those who don’t use computers, Town Administrator Tim Bragan said that might cause confusion.
Apparently, cyberspace is now the communication conduit recognized by the state. The electronic option has been approved by the attorney general and aligns with the new Open Meeting Law, Bragan said.
It was a different story when the upgraded OML went into effect earlier this year.
The big worry then seemed to be where to locate the posting panel, since its current location on the front porch at Town Hall fell one item short of the new requirements. It was under a roof, open 24/7, and lit by an overhead lamp, but not handicapped accessible.
At that time, Bragan and the board talked about where else it could go, such as a covered kiosk that could be built and installed at ground level in the parking lot.
The location of the posting board generated almost as much angst as the OML’s tougher new tenets, one of which required individual notices for each scheduled meeting, disallowing “blanket postings.” It also required a draft agenda with each posting.
The idea is to provide the public with advance information about meetings so they can decide whether or not to attend, Bragan said, which is why the OML mandates more than a heads-up stating that a board meets monthly on a first Monday, for example, or every two weeks.
In addition to stating when and where meetings will be held, postings must also provide a list of topics the boards plan to discuss. Other changes included no longer counting weekends and holidays in the 48-hour window required for advance notice of a public meeting.
None of that has changed, but some board members questioned whether substituting a virtual location for a physical one may pose problems for some people.
Clearly the state doesn’t think so. According to the attorney general’s recent interpretation of the law, the Town website meets all the criteria and is a suitable “public place” to post meetings. It is accurate, current, open to all and thus may be the best and most accessible way to get the word out, Bragan explained.
Selectman Tim Clark asked if there’s a place set up in Town Hall where people who don’t have a computer at home can access the website. Apparently not, but Bragan said they can go to the library.
Chairman Peter Warren said he’d like to talk about the issue further at the next meeting. Bragan agreed to invite Town Clerk Janet Vellante, whose responsibility it is to post public meetings.
For now, though, that’s where things stand, and it’s official. The display case, with its familiar clutter of paper postings is gone. Residents who want to know what’s up around town — including public meetings — can visit the Town website at www.harvard-ma.org.