By Michael J. Billoni
On Monday, The Town Board of Grand Island held its second virtual meeting via its YouTube channel because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the state of emergency declared by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last month. During the pre-meeting workshop session, each councilmember and Supervisor John C. Whitney, P.E., discussed an ability to involve residents virtually with the town’s various public meetings and hearings.
“Good government relies on an open communication with the public,” stated Councilman Michael H. Madigan. “We cannot make decisions on a number of matters without public meetings, and I am concerned about the number of residents who cannot access our meetings virtually because they do not have a computer and cannot get into the library to use one there.”
Councilman Thomas A. Digati asked Whitney to consider convening a workshop virtually of department heads soon to address virtual meetings to include public comments for the backlog of public hearings, including “Project Olive,” the code name for the proposed 3.8-million-square-foot warehouse and distribution center on part of a 145-acre plot along Long Road. These virtual meetings would include the opportunities for residents to participate via online or phone call-in.
“We need to be prepared for the weeks after the May 15 date the governor has set for New York ‘PAUSE’ to end. We need a plan for the Planning Board and the architect and zoning review boards to meet because the building season is short and we have a lot of projects on the table,” Digati said.
While members cannot imagine a time when a room will be filled for a public hearing in the near future, it was agreed they would look at a combination of opening public hearings with social distancing enforced along with virtual meetings on the same subject.
During the 48-minute board meeting, a motion was passed for the town to call upon Congressman Brian Higgins and Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand to support federal funding related to the coronavirus pandemic that is directly delivered to all municipalities, regardless of population size.
Section 601 of the CARES Act (P.L. 116-136) provides a $150 billion fund for units of local government with a population in excess of 500,000 people, of which Grand Island does not meet.
While the resolution, being proposed by all municipalities of populations under 500,000, speaks about the depletion of revenue sources for local government – specifically the loss of sales tax – Town Board members said that is not a major concern for Grand Island, because of the conservative approach Accountant Pamela Barton has used in creating the annual budget.
During board member’s comments, prior to adjournment, Councilwoman Jennifer L. Baney spoke about the high number of unique viewers on the town’s YouTube channel for meetings and how this has “become a unique and successful way to interact with residents.” She also promoted the various ways the Grand Island Library is offering things to do for families and children through its website.
Whitney and Digati encouraged residents to remain vigilant during this pandemic by following the governor’s orders to stay indoors and, when out, wear face masks and gloves.
Digati said, “Things will be different for the foreseeable future, so we must do all we can to continue hearing from our residents,” as he promoted upcoming virtual meetings to include residents
In a comment that probably has not been heard often at a Town Board meeting, Digati added, “Mr. supervisor, I speak on behalf of the town board when we say, ‘Thank you’ for your dedication to the town and by keeping residents aware through your social media network and our website. We appreciate your efforts.”