West Hartford Town Manager Matt Hart provided updates on several important initiatives during a meeting of the Town Council Monday night.
By Ronni Newton
“Big news,” Town Manager Matt Hart said as he began delivering his Town Manager’s Report at Monday night’s Town Council meeting. “We are looking to reopen town hall more broadly to the public.”
The reopening date is currently planned for April 19.
Town Hall first closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 16, and while the move was intended to be short-term, the initial plan for reopening was uncertain at the time. The building ultimately remained completely closed to the public for months, gradually reopening for certain functions on an appointment-only basis on Aug. 3. For most of the past 13 months, the majority of business has been conducted by phone or email, Hart said.
With the reopening, staffing will be increased to approximately 100%, Hart said, with exceptions granted as needed to those employees who need to work remotely until they are fully vaccinated.
The experience of going to Town Hall will be different than it was pre-pandemic, with the most obvious change that all visitors must use the official front door – the main entrance by the flagpoles.
“We are going to take this opportunity to implement some new security measures that we were contemplating before the pandemic,” Hart told the Council.
He told We-Ha.com that the upgrades were something the town had been looking into prior to the pandemic to make the building more secure.
“All public access will be through the Town Hall lobby,” Hart said, and there will be a greeter. All members of the public must wear a mask and follow social distancing requirements when inside the building.
Employees, as well as Council members, will be able to use their badges to access the building.
Hart said the town will continue to encourage most business to be conducted by phone or email. A secure box will be installed outside the building where forms and other documents can be dropped off drop off, and the existing secure deposit box for paying tax bills will remain.
Town Hall hours of operation will continue to be Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Those attending evening meetings will still need to use the main entrance, however there will not be a greeter after hours.
Due to the reopening of the building, Town Council and Board of Education meetings scheduled for after April 19 will take place in person in the legislative chambers, Room 314.
The Board of Education will resume meeting at Town Hall on Tuesday, April 20 at 7 p.m.. The Town Council is scheduled to meet in legislative chambers on Thursday, April 22, at 7 p.m., to approve the FY2022 budget.
Corporation Council Dallas Dodge said that while Connecticut’s state of emergency is still in effect, the town is required to hold meetings in a hybrid manner, so that members of the Council as well as the public can participate remotely.
“If any councilors are uncomfortable for any reason there will be a webex option,” Dodge said. “The same will be true for members of the public.”
For those attending in-person, chairs will be spaced further apart and plexiglass barriers will be in place, and the protocols will be approved in advance by the West Hartford-Bloomfield Health District.
Seating for the public will be extremely limited in legislative chambers, but there will be overflow capacity in the Town Hall auditorium down the hall where there is more room to spread out. The meetings will be projected, and those who are in the auditorium can still sign up to speak but must otherwise remain outside the room.
In his Town Manager’s Report, Hart also noted that hours for browsing and using computers at the Noah Webster Library have been extended as of this week. While appointments are still required, the hours are now Monday through Friday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Branch library hours are unchanged.
Hart also commended the West Hartford Fire Department and its leadership for retaining its ISO Class 2 rating. The rating is re-evaluated every five years, and the excellent rating received has a positive impact on property insurance rates for residents.
A proposed resolution was submitted to the Town Council in March, and a public hearing had been scheduled for April 15 followed by a vote on the expansion of outdoor dining. That hearing and vote has been canceled because the measure is unnecessary, Dodge said.
The governor’s executive order expanding outdoor dining was codified by the state legislature last week, and through March 2022 gives municipalities additional flexibility to allow use of rights of ways and other public spaces, also reducing the need for significant paperwork such as site surveys or traffic studies when approving applications for permits for outdoor dining. It also allows municipalities wishing to permanently expand the availability of outdoor dining and retail activity to expedite permanent changes to their own zoning rules.
The Town of West Hartford had already began taking action to ensure that expanded outdoor dining and retail – which was so successful in 2020 – could continue through Dec. 31, 2021, even if the governor or legislature did not take action.
“We knew it could happen. We just wanted to cover ourselves for the possibility that that the state would not act,” Hart said. Submitting the ordinance was a “proactive move” to ensure the popular program could return this year.
Hart is also working on a permanent zoning amendment which will be proposed for consideration this fall.
The dining corrals in West Hartford Center and Blue Back Square will be installed in late April or early May, Hart said.
“We need to wait for utility work to be completed. A number of projects are underway on LaSalle Road, Farmington Avenue, and South Main Street,” he said. Once that work, which is being done by several utility companies, is done, the barriers will be installed all at once.
More details will be forthcoming, but Hart said there will be a “slightly smaller footprint” than there was last year, in order to accommodate the demand for maintain on-street parking for use by retail customers.
Changes to overnight parking ban
West Hartford’s suspended its ban on parking between the hours of 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. last March, but reinstated it from Dec. 1, 2020 through March 31, 2021. The ban was suspended once again for most streets as of April 1, and the Council will be considering an ordinance to make permanent changes.
The proposed change to the ordinance would give the town manager the authority to implement additional parking regulations that would exempt some streets from any or part of the ordinance, Hart said.
The plan would be to allow residents only to park on streets where it would be appropriate to allow it, Hart told the Council on Monday. “It would very much remain a regulated activity.”
The measure will be reviewed by the Council’s Public Works and Facilities Committee because parking services falls within that committee’s purview, and then will be brought back to the Council so a public hearing, which is required, can be scheduled.
Hart told We-Ha.com that it’s possible the committee will discuss the ordinance change later this month.
Another measure the Council planned to discuss, an “Ordinance Establishing a Procedure for the Honorary and Historic Renaming of Public Streets,” was withdrawn from the Monday meeting agenda.
Hart said the withdrawal of the item was a calendar issue due to the timeframe for which a public hearing must be set and held, and the ordinance will be on the agenda for the next meeting with a hearing expected to be scheduled for May 11.
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