WNESU restricts Zoom meeting chat function

BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. – In a recent vote conducted by the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, the board voted to discontinue allowing the “chat” function during their Zoom meetings, except during the designated timeframes when public comments are permitted.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit Vermont in March, school boards throughout the state have been utilizing various computer virtual meeting programs, such as Zoom and Google Chat, to conduct meetings and allow the public to view and participate.

Previously, the WNESU Board had allowed people to post comments throughout meetings in the written chat section of Zoom; however, Board Chairman David Clark recently announced that the board’s attorney recommended the practice be discontinued entirely. According to the attorney, Pietro Lynn, of Lynn, Blackman & Manistsky based in Burlington, utilizing the chat function is a violation of the Vermont Open Meeting Law.

In a written statement to the board, Lynn wrote, “I discourage use of the chat function during board meetings via Zoom. I believe it is inconsistent with Vermont’s Open Meeting Law. The Open Meeting Law contemplates that the board will utilize the Robert’s Rule of Order. This means that the public may speak only when recognized by the chair or as part of a public comment period. The concept that members of the public can make statements during the course of a meeting without being recognized and identified does not seem to fit the Open Meeting Law procedures.

“I compare the practice of letting people have running commentary or questions during the meeting to people shouting out during a normal meeting. We would not allow it and should not for virtual meetings.”

The board will now follow Robert’s Rule of Order, which states that the public can speak when recognized by the chair or as part of a designated public comment period. The purpose is to replicate the functions of real meetings, with the intent to affirm the chairs’ right to establish guidelines consistent with the Open Meeting Law, and the intent to only open the chat function of Zoom in order to take statements during the public comment portion of meetings.

The chair may also set a time limit on individual public comments as to ensure the overall meeting may be conducted in a timely manner. Upon conclusion of the public comments, the chat function will be closed until the board’s “question and answers” period at the end of the meeting, when the board again allows for questions to be asked through the chat function.

The WNESU directors recently voted 6-2 to not allow the “chat” function for future school board meetings and to only allow comments from participants during the designated timeframes.

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