Connecticut Democratic town committees throughout the state have been using online web meetings to conduct membership business the past three weeks and the Cheshire Democratic Town Committee is no exception.
CDTC Secretary and Communications Committee member Therese Bradley has been producing the web meetings for the CDTC and CDTC Chairperson Courtney Cullinan conducted the meetings. While the CDTC meetings have gone on with a few minor bugs, it certainly has been a unique experience conducting the virtual CDTC meetings.
Here are some observations of some of the CDTC members and Democratic town officials who have participated in the web meetings.
From Rich Gusenburg, who sees a huge difference between listening by phone and going online and seeing video shots of members:
From Cheshire Democratic Town Councilor Peter Talbot: "As someone who spends waaaay too much time on conference calls, webinars and video conferencing, I was pleased to see how well our web meeting went. Kudos to Courtney and Therese for running such a smooth meeting. To the participants, I’d say, great job listening and responding and keeping chatter to a minimum. Not sure this is what we’d do all the time, but in a pinch we know we have this in our back pocket."
From Hap Jordan: "I thought the Monday meeting (March 30) worked pretty well. Muting one’s phone is a MUST! A few times in the past I have used “GoTo Meeting” for these types of events. A video component is nice for a small group, but obviously not ours. I look forward to the time when there is a component for queuing up for questions, like if you press a key (like raising your hand) the moderator is signaled. It looks like I will have a chance to compare this experience with using ‘Zoom’ which seems popular now. I enrolled in the webinar on Ranked Choice. Now I have to figure out how to get Zoom and make it work. I believe it’s what many schools are now using for their new ‘distance learning’ environment. Should be interesting."
From Breina Schain (submitted after our first virtual meeting March 30):
1. I felt that Courtney and Therese did an outstanding job in researching and setting up the meeting while providing instructions to all. We all owe them a large debt of gratitude. Last Saturday, I did partake in a Zoom meeting from Hamden and even though several of us practiced the day before with a professional computer person, I had a problem with no audio input. So, I missed the first 1/2 hour and only heard the last hour of the meeting. Probably, most people like myself, do not have a webcam or microphone so my personal photo was dark with only my name printed in the box. However, I like the fact that I could use a simple phone with our CDTC meeting with only a number to enter and no password necessary.
2. We need to establish a few rules at the outset. One is that we need to state our name before we speak always, except for roll call of course, when Therese calls our names. I realized that in the beginning before the meeting started so I gave my name before I spoke. We should state our name and then Courtney should give verbal permission to, "go ahead" so we don't speak all at once. That could help with the awkwardness. Some people may have wanted to speak, but were hesitant to do so due to the fear of interrupting, etc.
3. I called Courtney right after the meeting ended since she didn't ask for the meeting to be "adjourned" and have a second. She acknowledged this very nicely. This is minor since we did reach our two goals of our meeting; acquiring information on the virus while allowing the time for questions and having the convention delegates approved.
4. As I said last night, I hope that we could find a way to record these meetings for our records and to make it easier for Therese to write the notes. Therese always needs to know who is speaking and this is another reason to identify ourselves clearly prior to speaking. It will be hard for her without the recording since people spoke out differently then usual (raising their hands, etc.) The meeting lecturer I had Saturday is researching how to record the meeting and he used Zoom. I heard that Zoom is more complicated than Webex but I'm not sure if this is the case. I feel strongly that we should investigate having an official recording of the meeting if it is in any way possible.
As to your comment that this method may be used in the future, it does have some good points. People who can't attend due to illness, weather conditions, working on their jobs, or on vacation can have a way to attend our meetings via phone or computer. It should expand the number of participants. If we could refine how we run the meetings by giving our names first for Courtney to acknowledge, it will slow the meeting down and make it more organized (again, for Therese to take notes and for people to comprehend what is happening). Courtney's role is most essential in keeping the flow of the meeting. However, once this virus ends, I do hope that we still have meetings in person when possible so we can see each other and congregate both formally and informally. That is very valuable, especially when we bring in new people to meet us and have a speaker. Perhaps we can still use the virtual method for inclement weather or for when many people are on summer vacation, etc.
5. The other way Courtney can slow it down is by announcing which part of the agenda we are in. For example, "New business" etc. If she has the agenda in print in front of her, it will help and she can ask other people to have the printed agenda in front of them or on their computer. I did have the agenda open in front of me on my computer and it did help me. Courtney can also ask for votes on items and can announce how many people voted for or against to clarify. It will be easy for Therese to write the times down on when the meeting started and ended too via computer. In other words, subjects have to be stated clearly so there is no mass confusion resulting in turning away our members. I also think that Courtney has to be sure to find out if people are not holding back comments on topics. For example, she can say, "are there any of you who want to comment?" and again say, "does anyone else want to make a comment?" before closing the topic. I'd hate for anyone to have to hold back their ideas just because they are on computer and can't see everyone. What I am saying in essence is we have to find ways to get around the awkwardness of the forum and learn to adapt. We should document our rules for everyone including the chair to follow.
6. So, once again, I think we have to send out a memo (with protocol) on how we plan to run the meetings virtually, after compiling all these comments and reviewing them with analysis. We should all be on the same page. Also, if people come in late like last night, for instance, when someone came in later, do we let them interrupt or should Courtney ask if there are new people at certain points, such as fifteen minutes into the meeting, etc. I wonder how many people used phones like me, or were on camera, or just had access on their computer with a darkened space with their name, like I experienced in Zoom. I'd be very interested in learning these statistics. Should the CDTC subsidize the purchase of cameras or microphones for those on the CDTC to help us out financially? I wonder about this so we can all be equal. Perhaps we can vote on this. Please note that these are my ideas.
7. Finally, we need practice this new virtual method as it will take a few sessions to work out the flaws, etc. I do know someone who didn't get involved because they were nervous about it and reticent. This person thought it would just be "mass confusion". I gave the name to Courtney after the meeting so she could work with this person and help them by giving confidence, etc. This person NEVER misses any meetings and I feel so badly about the problem. I do hope that Courtney will call the person and tell them that it is so simple to dial the number and give the code (no password needed) and there is NO cost involved. It is too bad the number we call is not an 1-800 number so we are assured there is no cost. I do not want to lose any of our valued members due to issues that can be worked out. Please take the time to call and encourage the person, who never misses any of our meetings.
In summary, I feel most of our members stepped up to the plate and bravely joined the meeting. They were largely respectful about not interrupting the speakers (Courtney or Representative Liz Linehan). Incidentally, Liz did a phenomenal job in bringing us up to date with valuable information and answered questions exhibiting her excellent knowledge. I heard she has a new TV show on public TV and maybe she will let everyone know about this so we can follow-up. We need to show respect and at the same time voice our concerns appropriately. Courtney could say for instance, that Liz will now speak about the Corona Virus and at the end of her talk will take questions or comments to make it flow better. This is just my thoughts. If people know it is organized (and not mass confusion) they will feel better about this, knowing that they will be given ample time to give their thoughts. Courtney, of course, can cut off comments when she thinks it is appropriate as our Chair. But the main thing is I hope everyone can speak out and get used to this new virtual forum.
Dan Nowak is chairman of the Cheshire Democratic Town Committee's Communication Relations/IT Committee, a volunteer position. He is a Cheshire Parks and Recreation Commissioner and has been a sportswriter at the New Haven Register for 36 years.