Who’s Captain Zoom of the virtual board meetings, keeping the Starship Ridgefield on course for a democratically negotiated budget, even if people crowding into a room to debate taxes and spending seems like something from a galaxy long ago and far away?

It’s Andrew Neblett.

He’s the town’s information technology or “IT” director, and the coronavirus crisis has made his work life a bit complicated. Neblett’s the host of those Zoom meetings — making sure boards members can see and hear each other, and that members of the public can listen in and offer comments and be heard.

“With Zoom you can be anywhere as long as you’ve got a camera or phone, however you want to do it,” he said. “You can just do it from any device that has that capacity…

“You can call in by phone or do video. It works on the cell phone, computer, iPads, all that kind of things,” Neblett said.

The Board of Selectmn has had audiences of over 200 for some of its Zoom meetings. The recent Tri-Board meeting had 19 “panelists — five selectmen, five finance board members, nine school board memebers. And at some meetings over 20 members of the public offered comment.

“They’re using iPads, their phones, they're using their laptops, they’re using desktops, they're using their Macs. It’s a great platform,” Neblett said..

“We can record the meeting and save it through different levels of protection — people can watch it or ask questions. It’s a versatile solution,” he said.

“There’s other technologies like Zoom out there — we’ve been using Zoom for management work for weeks now,” Neblett said.

“There’s a webinar format, we can do a lot more,” he said. “ …500 people can be on it at the same time.”

First Selectman Rudy Marconi still chairs the Board of Selectmen’s meetings on Zoom, but when its time for “public comment” Neblett takes the virtual gavel, recognizes viewers who’ve “raised their hand” electronically, and patches them in so board members can hear them as they share opinions.

With difficult budget decisions to be made during a time of economic uncertainty, there’ve regularly been 15 or 20 people sharing opinions with the board. It’s not perfect. There are occasionally problems — Wednesday night, May 6, one school supporter was so determined to be heard that after failing to connect a couple of times due to problems with her home computer, she went to her neighbors’ house and said her piece from their computer.

Marconi appreciates having Neblett there, online, throughout the meetings — which can go late into the night — to handle all the technical aspects, so he and the other selectmen can focus on the content of the discussion and not worry about the electronic stuff.

“I’m not a techie, so I don’t have clue,” Marconi said.

“He stays, above and beyond, he stays on and handles all the people ‘raising their hands’ who want to be heard.”

Zoom bombing

There were some unexpected problems at the first virtual board meeting the selectmen did.

“We set up for Zoom, so it was wide open, we had a ‘Zoom bombing’ — they put graphics up on your screen, they take over. The language was awful, horrible,” Marconi said.

“If you don’t set up your Zoom with proper controls, you can be subjected to horrible language and disgusting graphics.”

Neblett made an adjustment that night, and has set up subsequent Zoom meetings with a higher level or security, so the problem hasn’t recurred.

“They did have some security issues but they sent out a patch,” Neblett said. “They're making it better. But if you're careful you can keep it secure.”

The way the Zoom meetings are run now, people register in advance to participate in the meeting.

“We’ve changed the format now. So you register for the meeting,” Neblett said. “We decided to go to the highest level of security. If you’re going to be participating from the public, there's a link and you can join the meeting...

“There’ll be a link for a Zoom meeting on the town’s website, and that link is a link to register for that meeting,” he said.”So people will use that link, and they’ll go register for that meeting, and once they’re registered the Zoom software will send them a link to get into the meeting...

“It's the highest level,” he said. “Right now we're experimenting on the best way to use Zoom. “We’re trying to cover a lot of bases here, because of social distancing — we have to be an example to the town,” Neblett said.

“It doesn’t take much to set up the meetings,” he added.

Marconi likes having Neblett on hand throughout the meetings to keep the Zoom running technically — then he doesn’t have to worry about it.

“He takes care of that, and he stays on with us — above and beyond the call of duty,” Marconi said.

Work from home

And the Zoom meetings are just one aspect of Neblett’s job that has gotten more complicated with the coronavirus lock-down.

He’s kept most of town hall and the town hall annex working from home, with everyone connected to work and colleagues via computers and the Internet. It’s his job to make sure it’s all running smoothly, so people with varying technical skills can all remain productive.

“We’re definitely adapting. We do have people working from home. We do have some people doing shifts in the town hall. As you know Parks and Recreation is closed down,” he said.

Some departments are “rotating working at home and who’s in the office,” Neblett said. “We're flexible.”

The work-from-home approach has its limits.

“I think what’s made my life crazier is people don’t realize what, until you're actually in it, how much you gain from being physically there.,” Neblett said.

“Sometimes people say: ‘Why doesn’t everyone work remotely from home?’ If people are sending in checks to pay their taxes, where are they sent to? The tax office has to go in,” he said.

“During this process we’re figuring out what can be done from home, who’s going to do it, and who going to go in,” he said.

“If people can work from home they'll be working from home, and that way they're not transmitting anything.

“We're being very flexible and creative at this point,” he said..

“This keeps our employees safer because town hall is closed to the public.”

Through it all, whether people are stopping in at the office some days or working in their pajamas from their kitchens, they’re using computers.

And that means there are a lot computers Neblett has to keep connected, functional, bleeping away.

“We have just under 200 people who are working with the town,” Marconi said.

“He’s keeping up with it. He was one part-time assistant.”

Cyber security

And ‘Zoom-bombing’ isn’t the only security concern. Governments, with all the important information and records they store, have to guard against hackers and cyber criminals.

“The Southeast COG, Council of Governments, unfortunately had an episode with ransomware and had to pay $60,000 just to get their information returned, so they could go back to work,” Marconi said.

“So, Andrew is constantly worrying,” Marconi said.”When you have people who have a tendency — especially those who want to bring their own laptop to work and tie in the town network — he’s tried to prevent that completely because that’s when you get the viruses.

“He’s done an amazing job, keeping us safe and secure.”

Ridgefield is part of the Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security Region Five, and Marconi said Neblett “chairs a Region Five Homeland Security cyber team and in that capacity works with the state of Connecticut, as well.”

“He does a great job for us,” Marconi said.

Neblett has been working for the Town of Ridgefield almost 15 years, and moved to town four years ago.

But this year — 2020, the year of coronavirus, and work-from-home, and Zoom meetings — looks like it’s going to be memorable and demanding.

“Email, phone calls, zoom meetings, working from home or cycling in and out,” Neblett said. “...Me, I’m just 7 days a week, where I am — unless I have to take care of some equipment. I’ve been doing a lot of work at home, yes.”