Jun. 10—LEWISTON — The City Council has opted to wait until September to return to in-person meetings, but Lewiston's civil state of emergency is expected to be lifted in the coming days.
After more than a year of conducting city business over videoconferencing, officials said they were eager to get back to in-person meetings. During a workshop on Tuesday, officials said the council's limited summer schedule means they will only meet three more times until September, and that the delay could allow staff to be even more prepared for the return.
As of now, the chambers have been modified with plexiglass barriers and distancing for both councilors and the public
City Administrator Denis D'Auteuil told officials that staff was ready to return for the council's next meeting on Tuesday, June 15.
"Staff are ready, willing and able to return to in-person as soon as the council is ready to do so," he said.
However, a majority of councilors agreed on waiting until September. Councilor Michel Lajoie was the lone member calling in from the chambers, where he used his camera to present the modified chambers.
Lewiston officials have been meeting over the Zoom videoconferencing system since March 2020, when the Maine Legislature amended laws allowing for public proceedings to be conducted through remote access.
While some of Maine's largest municipalities remain in remote meetings, including Portland, the Auburn City Council has met in person since last year. Lewiston officials said the system has had some benefits, including allowing certain people to participate in meetings that normally would not be able to make an in-person meeting at night.
However, municipalities have also struggled to ensure proper public access, especially while relying on technology that not everyone may be comfortable using.
Mayor Mark Cayer said using Zoom, "opened public meetings to a segment of the population who may not have the option to attend meetings," and asked staff whether some sort of remote option could remain. However, D'Auteuil recommended against attempting "any sort of hybrid" option.
Cayer said he's, "so ready to get face-to-face with all of you."
Several councilors agreed, stating that a hybrid option could be "awkward" or "ineffective." Despite the decision to wait a few more months, councilors said they were excited for the return.
Councilor Alicia Rea said she was "grateful" to city staff for its work to prepare the chambers. She also commented on the logistical issues of meeting over Zoom.
"I want to show that the vaccine works and is safe, and a return to in-person could help folks who may be hesitant," she said. "If I never have to hear 'you're on mute' again, I'd be a very happy councilor."
Councilor Safiya Khalid said Lewiston's Finance Committee returned to in-person meetings this week and that it, "felt really good," to be in the same room with colleagues again.
When asked, staff said current policies for City Hall will be used during council meetings, meaning those who are considered fully vaccinated do not need to wear a mask, and those who are unvaccinated are required to wear one.
Councilor Zack Pettengill said he missed the "camaraderie" of meeting in person, but said with only two meetings over July and August, "I don't think much is going to change."
The first in-person council meeting would be Tuesday, Sept. 7.
An announcement is also expected in the coming days over Lewiston's civil state of emergency, which was implemented on March 17, 2020.
The city administrator and mayor have authority under the charter to declare or rescind a state of emergency in the city, and despite Maine's overall COVID-19 trends, officials have been reluctant to rescind the order due to the lagging vaccination rates in Androscoggin County.