West Hartford Town Council Gets Back to Business through Virtual Meeting

West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor participating in the Town Council's first virtual meeting. Courtesy photo

The West Hartford Town Council held its first official meeting Monday since the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the closure of Town Hall and will be taking a new look at the previously-proposed budget.

By Ronni Newton 

Members of the West Hartford Town Council haven’t been idle since the COVID-19 pandemic began, but several scheduled meetings and hearings, as well as committee and town commission meetings were postponed or canceled while the process of effectively holding a virtual meeting was being perfected.

On Monday, April 6 – a day on which the Council had previously scheduled a budget hearing, a zoning hearing, and a regular meeting – the body instead held a special meeting, on a virtual basis, to receive multiple reports and adopt resolutions, including rules changes allowing the Council “to function efficiently and effectively in a virtual mode during the current public health crisis” in accordance with Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive orders allowing town governments to conduct virtual meetings.

One of the major tasks the Town Council has in the next few months will be approval of the town’s budget for FY2021, which begins July 1, and Town Manager Matt Hart said that in recognition of the significant impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the nation’s economy, he and Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore “are in the process of looking at options to mitigate the proposed tax increase in the budget we submitted just weeks ago.”

The budget was scheduled for adoption on April 20, but Hart said the process has been delayed approximately 30 days in accordance with executive orders issued by the governor, and Council committees will likely be meeting in early May to discuss specifics. Information about public hearings and the scheduled vote will be forthcoming.

Revenues will be impacted as well, and the town is looking at a shortfall in the last quarter of the current fiscal year which will necessitate changes to the current budget.

Hart noted that a spending freeze has been implemented as of last week for all non-essential expenses, and a “limited and targeted layoff of town personnel” is anticipated, with hopes that those impacted will be able to be brought back at the start of the new fiscal year.

Hart said it is “imperative to take that action as a result of this fiscal situation.” The impacted employees were not identified.

Council members participated in the meeting from their homes, via videoconference and/or phone, and the meeting was available for viewing live on West Hartford Community Interactive (Comcast Channel 5 and AT&T U-Verse Application 99, www.whctv.org) as well as WHCi’s YouTube channel. It was also recorded for on demand viewing.

All councilors were in attendance, and despite some occasional technical glitches, all were able to participate in every vote. The meeting even began with the customary Pledge of Allegiance.

“This is history. I would have chosen different circumstances,” said Mayor Shari Cantor from her home office. “We are committed to returning to regular order of meetings as soon as possible,” she said, adding that the process will be as open as possible, and setting guidelines to ensure that those who were listening and did not have video would be able to know who was speaking at each time. To properly tally votes, even simple votes are being be taken by roll call.

In addition to the nine Council members, Town Manager Matt Hart, Finance Director Peter Privitera, Corporation Counsel Dallas Dodge, Deputy Corporation Counsel Gina Verrano, Acting Director of the West Hartford-Bloomfield Health District Aimee Krauss, Police Chief Vernon Riddick, and Fire Chief Greg Priest were also in attendance and participated in the meeting.

Many of the actions that have taken place over the past four weeks since the Council last met – including Cantor’s Declaration of Emergency on March 15 and two executive orders issued by Hart – were reviewed with the Council. Cantor confirmed that the town is tracking all of its COVID-19 expenses for expected reimbursement by FEMA due to the pandemic being declared a national emergency.

In addition to stating plans to take another hard look at the budget, Hart also outlined to Council members how the Incident Command System (ICS) quickly got up and running, and includes staff teams dedicated to planning, operations, logistics, communications, and finance.

Recreational facilities have been gradually forced to close over the past several weeks, and Town Hall is operating virtually. Hart specifically mentioned how many functions are still taking place, including building inspections that are now taking place on a virtual basis.

A Community Life and Safety Support Program (CLASP) has been implemented, and the registry now includes 350 names of residents with particular needs. A team from the fire department, leisure and social services, and library staff reaching out by phone on a regular basis to check on those on the registry and to ensure their needs are being met.

Not only is the Food Pantry continuing to operate three days a week outside Town Hall, but Hart said that food is also being delivered to several congregant housing sites.

As of Monday, approximately 1,600 devices had been distributed to West Hartford Public School students to use in distance learning, and approximately 20,000 grab and go meals had been distributed since school buildings closed on March 16.

“I remain incredibly proud of our team,” Hart said.

Hart said the town intends to keep the parks and fields open as long as possible, and hopes the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) will do the same with the reservoirs, “but we need the community’s cooperation.”

Cantor said the town has been advocating for parks to stay open, working with the MDC, Department of Public Health, and Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “We really are committed to keeping our public spaces open but we’re not going to do it if it [endangers] the entire community,” she said.

Dodge, who was named corporation counsel in December 2019, said the 21 executive orders issued by the governor as of Monday had essentially been a rewrite of more than 150 general statutes, all of which he has been carefully reviewing. Hart’s first executive order was the first time an executive order had ever been issued in West Hartford, and he has been providing support to the West Hartford-Bloomfield Health District as well, adding to never-before-encountered legal issues for his department.

“This is truly a historic and unprecedented crisis in the history of man,” Dodge said.

Krauss discussed the evolution of the Health District’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic, which initially involved monitoring travelers coming from China to activation of virtually all of the organization’s response plans. In addition to tracking data regarding positive cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, Krauss said the Health District has been assessing the social service needs of those who are in quarantine or isolation – which could involve needs such as dialysis.

The Health District is “actively engaged in contact tracing,” Krauss said, and has also been working with long-term care, short-term rehabilitation facilities, and group homes, as well as other facilities. Nurses who are employed in the non-public schools have been used for triage.

The Health District is also responsible for working with local businesses that remain open to ensure they are following guidance.

As allergy season ramps up, Krauss said in response to a question from Council member Liam Sweeney that people should always contact their primary healthcare provider if they feel sick, and that individual can determine whether or not a COVID-19 test is needed. Appointments and a physician’s note are required for all testing, including drive-through tests, she said.

In his report to the Council, Chief Priest said the fire department has had to learn how to adapt because as a crew-based organization physical distancing is not easy. The department has been “increasing our use of PPE for every call” while at the same time sending a scout out to initially attend many calls to determine the number of personnel needed, and has created separate spaces within the fire stations.

The union has been very cooperative, Priest said.

Personnel have been redeployed to include three light-duty units “to take and keep our responders away from unnecessary contact,” Priest said, to reduce the curve within the department itself. New recruits who were undergoing training at the fire academy are working as drivers for those light duty units.

The number of medical calls per day has dropped from 20-25 to 10-15, “but the number where COVID is suspected is on the increase,” Priest said, and the presumptive symptoms have also expanded.

As of Monday, Priest reported that 12 staff members were quarantined – 10 resulting from exposure on a call, and two due to family-related exposure. Of those, only two were symptomatic, and only one of those due to a work-related exposure. Eight of those quarantined were due to return to work by the end of the week if they remained healthy.

Priest said his top five challenges are: ensuring enough healthy responders, keeping the supply of PPE (for which he appreciated the town’s outreach), worry about the impact on the town’s workers’ compensation exposure, existing adequate staffing due to already-existing vacancies of 13%, and potential additional costs.

Priest said that the department has great folks, “facing this with strength, courage, and honor,” and he has faith that they will overcome the challenges.

Chief Riddick said the police department is following some of the same procedures as the fire department, and has a continuity plan in place in case patrol officers are sick, including pulling staff from community relations, school resource officer, and detectives. Four officers were on quarantine as of Monday, he said, but none had tested positive.

All department members have their temperatures taken daily at the beginning and end of their shifts, Riddick said.

All police vehicles have been outfitted with a COVID-19 kit that includes a mask, gloves, and goggles, and in addition each officer has their own kit and a back-up kit is available. Officers are required to decontaminate their own vehicles after each shift.

Calls to the Emergency Response Center (ERC) are being carefully screened so that officers only need to go out in person when absolutely necessary, Riddick told the Council.

Roll call is being taken outside to maintain physical distancing, and the command shift meets by phone. Suspects associated with many “lower level” crimes are not being held or even brought back to the police station, and officers are using their flexibility to issues infractions in certain cases, Riddick said.

The total number of calls is down about 15%.

As for how the police will respond to those disobeying mandates regarding group gatherings, Riddick said, “We don’t want a police state.” The initial action will be a verbal warning, and arrest is a last resort.

“Thus far the public has been very cooperative when we show up and ask them to disburse,” Riddick said.

“Good old fashioned common sense is what we need right now. … We need to work together for the preservation of life,” Riddick said.

There has not yet been an increase in domestic disturbances in town, Riddick said.

Each of the resolutions considered by the Council Monday night passed unanimously by roll call vote.

The resolutions included approval of the executive authority granted to the town manager, which expires July 6 unless terminated earlier; amendment of standing rules to allow the virtual meetings; appropriation of $375,000 for COVID-19 expenses which may ultimately be reimbursed through FEMA; appropriation of $150,000 to relocate utilities underground as a result of the Berkshire Road bridge replacement, to be reimbursed by the Department of Transportation; and appropriation of $259,191 in energy rebates to the Capital Projects Fund.

In addition, the Council also approved a resolution providing tax relief to eligible residents and businesses through a deferment and reduced interest rate.

Cantor said that in the coming days the town will be issuing public service announcements, beginning with a video message (see below) shared on Twitter on Thursday regarding following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendation regarding the wearing of masks.

Looking back after the pandemic is over, Cantor said, “I hope you can proudly say what did you do – did you protect your parents, your grandparents. … I know that West Hartford has the will … I want our community to be as safe and as strong coming through this horrible nightmare on the other end.”

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