After months of legislating via webconference due to the pandemic, Bridgeville officials gathered in person for their September and October meetings. However, residents could only watch the proceedings at home through a low-resolution webcam and microphone set up in the back of council’s chambers.
This arrangement might be helpful for councilmembers, but it’s failing the borough’s taxpayers, said former mayor Pat DeBlasio Jr, who showed up at the start of this month’s meeting to voice his concerns.
The borough’s webcam makes it difficult to hear what anybody is saying during meetings, DeBlasio said.
“The last time i listened,” DeBlasio Jr. said, “I couldn’t hear anything, because you have no microphones. So I can’t hear you and I don’t know if you can hear me.”
For most of this year, councilmembers worked around the pandemic using Zoom. Each attendee was at home, sitting in front of their computer’s camera and mic. This more intimate presentation actually made council meeting easier to follow that in pre-COVID times, especially when combined with Zoom presentation-sharing features.
In September, however, council switched to meeting in person. The proceedings were livestreamed over Zoom using using a 480p webcam and a microphone that is pushed to its limits trying to capture voices from 25 feet away.
Council President William Henderson said he was surprised by DeBlasio Jr’s criticism this week because the borough hadn’t received any prior complaints about audio quality.
“There’s no intention to withhold any information from the public,” he said. “We’ve been very upfront [and Zoom has] allowed people who normally wouldn’t attend the meeting to attend. It’s been an interesting time and we’re trying to doing the best we can.”
DeBlasio Jr. suggested that council go back to meeting from their own computers and/or smart devices.
“It’s a great system,” he said. “You can hear everybody. Everybody can hear you.”
Councilman Nino Petrocelli Sr. agreed.
For the sake of the public, he said, meetings should either be moved to a large venue like the firehall—which could accommodate the public while allowing for social distancing—or meetings should be held from home like earlier this year.
“We were very successful doing Zoom,” Petrocelli Sr. said. “[Meeting in person] works good for us, but for the public, I don’t think it’s enough.”
Some unique circumstances led borough officials to hold the past two meetings in-person, Henderson said.
“These past two months,” he said, “we had specific issues that required dialogue as a group and we wanted to be certain we all had the chance to be heard. One was an executive session prior to the September meeting and… we held interviews for an open planning commission seat before Octobers meeting. “
With Allegheny County seeing a COVID surge, Henderson was concerned that allowing residents into the borough’s relatively small meeting room could make safe social distancing impossible.
Council will meet in-person again on Monday, Nov. 2 for its annual budget workshop session. Residents will be limited to watching on Zoom. Legal requirements regarding municipal budgets forced council to make that decision this week.
Beyond that, it’s unclear how council will hold future meetings.
“I hear you,” he told Petrocelli Sr. “And we’ll have a discussion about what we’ll do moving forward.”
“We will continue,” Henderson later added, “to seek ways to make certain people can hear and understand what we are discussing. We want nothing less than that.”