City Councilors vote to bring back public comment

City Councilors vote to bring back public comment

WOONSOCKET – In what’s likely to be his last official action as a member of the Woonsocket City Council, Councilor Alex Kithes on Monday proposed reinstating the “good and welfare” portion of council meetings, a dedicated time slot during which citizens have traditionally voiced their concerns publicly before the council.

Normally held toward the beginning of council meetings, the public comment period was struck from the agenda in the spring as councilors navigated the complexities of conducting city business during a pandemic. At the time, meetings took place virtually and were mostly broadcast using a YouTube format that did not allow for public engagement.

Now, with the council once again meeting in Harris Hall and the local impact of the pandemic entering its 10th month, Kithes said he’s been approached by citizens who want the public comment period restored.

“I’ve heard from a number of constituents that now that it unfortunately appears to us that COVID is not going to go anywhere in a little while, they would like to see citizens’ good and welfare reinstated,” he told his fellow councilors during Monday’s meeting.

Kithes, who did not win his bid for re-election earlier this month, pointed out that several other municipalities have reinstated their own versions of public comment during meetings.

The proposal was met with tentative support from other councilors, who praised the good and welfare portion of meetings but pointed out the difficulties of inviting public participation while continuing to abide by COVID-19 restrictions. Though reopened for meetings, the council chambers are still officially closed to members of the public, who are invited instead to watch the meetings online or through local cable TV.

“It is very difficult to merge public input through a Zoom-type platform and a public meeting, which is live right now,” said Council President Daniel Gendron.

Balancing public participation and COVID-19 safety measures has proved a challenge for many communities during the pandemic, with surrounding towns coming up with various solutions in response. In North Smithfield, where the Town Council also recently returned to in-person meetings, councilors for the first time this week experimented with taking comment via video feed while town officials listened from their newly remodeled council chambers.

In Blackstone, where the Board of Selectmen has continued meeting in person throughout much of the pandemic, town officials took a different approach, allowing members of the public to continue to approach them during meetings while following strict capacity and social distancing limits. During a particularly contentious meeting in July, the town set up a projection screen outside its Municipal Center so that members of the public could follow the proceedings outdoors while waiting their turn to enter the room to speak.

After Kithes agreed to changes that would allow an open timeline for city employees to develop their own approach, councilors voted unanimously in favor of reinstating public comment.

In addition to Kithes, Council Vice President Jon Brien also participated in his last regular meeting on Monday. Brien, who gave up his seat to launch an unsuccessful campaign against Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, will not return to the council in December. In remarks during the meeting, he thanked his supporters and promised to remain involved in city affairs.

Valerie Gonzalez, a former School Committee member, and Roger Jalette Sr., a former council president who last served in 2016, will take their seats following the city’s inauguration on Dec. 1.