The Riverhead Town Board — and "Supervisor for the Day" Arianna McMorris, second from right, at the Aug. 3, 2021 town board meeting. Photo: Alek Lewis

After blowback from residents for the cancellation of Zoom participation in public meetings, the public will be able to provide comment via Zoom during public hearings.

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said in an email to RiverheadLOCAL last week the town board would make a final decision on Zoom participation this week. The town, like many government entities during the coronavirus crisis, began using the Zoom video conferencing platform last year to allow the public to participate in public meetings after the governor restricted in-person attendance.

At today’s meeting Aguiar announced the public will be able to give testimony in public hearings via Zoom going forward. Public hearings are held to allow the public to comment directly to board members on proposed adoption and changes of local laws and certain other matters, such as special permit applications. Under the rule announced today, the public would not be able to use Zoom to comment on resolutions on the board’s agenda or during the open comment portion of the meeting, when residents can speak to the board on any topic that’s on their minds.

Aguiar has said numerous times that the move away from Zoom was to encourage the community to physically come back to meetings in Town Hall and to save the town the expense of having its IT person attend board meetings. She pointed to the towns of Southampton and Brookhaven, which she said had also stopped allowing Zoom participation. Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman last week acknowledged Southampton was no longer using Zoom and said he was’t sure the town had legal authority to allow public participation by videoconference. Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said Southold is continuing to allow participation via the video conferencing platform because it worked well for residents.

“We’re very committed to making sure Zoom stays an integrated part of the meeting process,” Russell said in a phone interview last Wednesday.

Residents were upset by the original decision, apparently made unilaterally by Aguiar and without any public discussion among the town board members. Aguiar said today the decision was administrative and she had authority to make it on her own. But she said during the town board meeting today she had consulted with town board members — including Councilman Tim Hubbard, who was absent from the meeting due to recent shoulder surgery — and that all but Councilwoman Catherine Kent were in agreement with the policy.

Aguiar said residents can always call her office to discuss issues or write to the town board by email or submit correspondence to the town clerk.

Kent said Aguiar had reached out to her by email for input on the decision this morning, but Kent said she declined to discuss it outside a public meeting.

Opponents of Aguiar’s decision, including Kent and Democratic council candidate Juan Micieli-Martinez, condemned the supervisor’s decision, citing a lack of participation from town residents. Micieli-Martinez said the town board should hold a public hearing to get input on the issue.

Kent said she had requested the board consider a resolution to continue meetings with Zoom. She said she submitted the resolution, which had been reviewed by the town attorney, before the deadline for the meeting’s final agenda, but it was taken off of the agenda by the supervisor.

Kent attempted today to get the board to vote on the resolution, which she distributed to board members and made a motion to approve it, but her motion didn’t gain a second and the resolution was not brought to a vote.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.