LINCOLN – Local boards and commissions now need to offer a streaming option for their meetings, according to new state guidance issued in response to rising COVID cases.

Gov. Dan McKee signed an executive order last week changing certain provisions of the Open Meetings Act, which will be in place until at least Feb. 4.

Similar to the last OMA-related executive order, which expired last July, the new guidance permits public bodies to meet virtually. If they opt to meet in person, they must still provide remote access to the meeting.

The difference between the previous order and this one is that the meetings may be conducted via phone, audio or video conferencing, provided that the public is given free access.

Several scheduled meetings in Lincoln were canceled last week as the town worked out a plan for providing alternative access.

As of now, Town Administrator Phil Gould said it is up to each individual board to decide whether to meet in person or entirely online.

The Town Council voted to table a resolution last September that would have mandated audiovisual recordings of all official town meetings, as well as access to the recordings via the town website.

Gould said he wasn’t sure whether the council would be changing its position in light of the new executive order, but said the town will be making sure local boards and committees have the option to stream.

“If a group decides to meet in person, the meeting will be streamed and we’ll restrict ‘Zoom bombing’ by restricting public comment to email or in-person comments,” he said.

There were some talks recently of upgrading video streaming equipment in the town’s conference room, but that equipment has not been purchased yet. Gould said he’s looking to move away from the current service used to stream Town Council and other meetings.

That’s part of an overall goal of updating the town’s information technology department, and Gould said a request for proposals is in the works for an IT consultant. That person or company would be hired to “come in and do a mid-level assessment of the town’s IT infrastructure, as far as what we currently provide services for and what we should be looking to do in the future,” he said.

“They could advise on whether we should be more cloud-based or server-based, and assess our departmental needs, offering recommendations on staffing and levels of service,” he continued. “They might say we should have a top-tier IT director and two help desk technicians, but I want to hear those recommendations from an outside professional.”

When the assessment is done, Gould is hoping to completely overhaul the town’s website and find a new company to provide web services.

“One company’s philosophy was that everything you’re looking for on the website should be two clicks away. Right now, you’re trying to find information and search through a labyrinth of different drop-downs. To try to do it from your phone is nearly impossible.”

He likes websites like Middletown, South Kingston and East Greenwich.

“Those are good-looking town sites, where it’s easy to search for specific information,” he said. “It’s not about reinventing the wheel.”

He’d also like to have a spot on the website where residents could opt into specific types of updates, from Parks and Recreation programs to power outages. In an effort to connect with more residents, he has also created a new Lincoln town Facebook page.

Gould said he already found the page helpful for updating the community during last week’s snow storm and the governor’s most recent COVID-19 guidance. Similar updates, along with trash delays, parking bans, local events and more, will be posted there.

“Social media is not the only tool we have to rely on, but it’s a valuable tool to have in the belt,” he said.

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