When Governor Ned Lamont issued Executive Order No. 7B in March 2020 as a response to the Covid 19 pandemic it affected political life in numerous ways across the state, including a requirement that official meetings held on remote video platforms such as Zoom be recorded and archived properly. First Selectman Gordon Ridgway implicitly addressed the town’s non-compliance with this mandate at the January 18 Board of Selectmen meeting, stating, “Whenever the town has virtual meetings, we have to make a copy and get it posted.”
In the approximately two years Cornwall and its boards and town committees have conducted their meetings online, they have relied exclusively on video recordings made by Richard Griggs, an untiring volunteer, who had been taping meetings for four years before the pandemic. Although not comprehensive Richard covered significant ground, posting the recordings on his personal YouTube account and was never advised to do otherwise.
During the January 18 meeting, Selectwoman Janet Carlson and web designer Rocco Botto, who as a member of the website committee launched an ambitious new design a year ago, proposed a fairly simple, cost-effective technical solution capable of fulfilling the Governor’s mandate: the town would create its own YouTube channel on which Zoom meetings would be streamed as they happened and automatically archived on cornwallct.org. No extra work needed.
Richard, the indefatigable “Video Guy” whose ambitious videotaping of live official meetings has been ongoing for six years (without compensation)] had not been consulted about this plan prior to the meeting and sat through the presentation of the proposal, without receiving acknowledgment or even being addressed. This treatment has received criticism, being characterized by meeting participant Bill Berry, for example, as “poor form, discourteous, and disrespectful of Richard’s faithful work over the years.”
Although the issue of non-compliance was not discussed at the meeting, Gordon confirmed it several days later in an interview with this Chronicle reporter. Soon, other interested parties will have a chance to voice their opinions. “Before we get too far into it, we do want to check in with our other board chairs”, Gordon said near the end of the January 18 meeting.
The website committee, of which Richard Griggs is a member, came together on January 23 and weighed in first. The minutes of the meeting make its position clear: A new and different system of handling town official videos would be “a positive move towards government transparency,” and cited “the uniqueness of the CornwallCT.org website structure” as “a collaboration between town employees and volunteer workers.”
The town’s non-compliance has thrown into relief the somewhat opaque set-up of cornwallct.org as the town website which necessitates a broader discussion. Is it realistic for a group of unelected Cornwall volunteers to be made responsible for FOIA and other legal obligations? The website committee was originally a sub-committee of the Cornwall Association, but now functions independently. It is not an extension of the town’s government.
In the meantime the website has posted, for the first time, a link to a video of a virtual committee meeting produced in one of the available new formats: https://bit.ly/ARPA-Zoom. This video recording from the morning of January 18 about the awarding of funds from the Cornwall share of subsidy money provided the town by the American Rescue Plan Act or ARPA is hosted on the Zoom platform and has an added feature: a voice recognition program based on artificial intelligence that creates a real-time transcription of what was said. Warning: the accuracy of the transcription is mindbogglingly bad. If you only read the transcript and don’t follow the video recording, you will almost certainly get lost.