In this July 14, 2021, file photo, Orono town councilors sit behind a closed door to the council chambers. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Orono will use some of its federal coronavirus relief funds to outfit the town’s council chambers as a “Zoom room” so the town can seamlessly host combined in-person and virtual municipal meetings.

Councilors have voted to spend up to $88,400 of the town’s American Rescue Plan Act funds for a technology overhaul in the seven-member board’s chambers.

The Zoom room represents Orono’s first use of its allotment of money from the federal relief package that Congress passed last year. The idea is to allow the Town Council to more seamlessly hold hybrid meetings that involve people gathered in the council chambers and others participating from home.

When Orono stopped its fully virtual meetings earlier in the pandemic and switched to hybrid meetings, problems started to arise, Assistant Town Manager Belle Ryder said. 

During those hybrid meetings, the council chair and municipal staff, such as the town manager, have to be in the council chambers. Members of the public are welcome to attend in person, but they can also attend virtually. Other councilors have the same option.

“When everybody was sitting at home on their own computers, it was easy for people to see up close and personal,” Ryder said. “But now that we’re doing hybrid meetings, we’ve really lost a lot of that personal connection.” 

The upgrades to the chambers include installing larger TV screens above the raised platform councilors typically sat at before the pandemic so that councilors can better see remote participants. 

There will be an audio system upgrade that will better amplify those who are speaking and cut out distracting noises such as papers shuffling, Ryder said. A video upgrade will feature HD cameras that can automatically track who is speaking. 

Additionally, the whole system will be designed to run off a tablet with preloaded settings so anyone can pick it up and run a meeting more easily, she said. 

“Hopefully this will make it a lot easier for everyone to run a meeting so that we’re not dependent on one to two people who know the ins and outs of the system,” Ryder told the council. 

Town Manager Sophie Wilson said the chamber upgrades are an allowed use of COVID-19 relief funds because they are about improving government transparency and developing options to continue government operations in the event of a future pandemic.

Councilor Cheryl Robertson praised the project, calling it the future of government. 

“I think it’s exciting, it’s the way of the future,” she said.

The project, which could cost up to $88,400, would leave Orono with $991,600 of its estimated $1.08 million American Rescue Plan award.

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...