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Governments weigh opening public meetings

As the COVID-19 pandemic brought about social distancing restrictions, local governments across the country were forced to hold their public meetings virtually for the first time on a regular basis. Now that many states have eased those restrictions, municipalities are easing back into the process, slowly opening their gatherings for the public to attend.

“Starting in July, our plan is to host our board meetings in person again,” said Anne Gentry, executive director of the Alpena Downtown Development Authority in Alpena, Mich.

WEST VIRGINIA

West Virginia cities including Parkersburg and Wheeling are moving back to in-person meetings as more and more restrictions are lifted.

Parkersburg City Council canceled its first meeting after Gov. Jim Justice issued a stay-at-home order, then held just one session in April. That included a state-mandated public hearing and forum, with participants in a separate room, because they were laying the levy rates for the year.

In mid-May, council voted 7-1 — in a remote meeting in which one member was inadvertently muted — to limit the public forum to comments submitted to the city clerk via email or telephone.

Council President Mike Reynolds said it was done in an effort to follow state guidelines about occupancy, but some residents took exception to the move, especially after changes came to the format of the forum in previous years. Some on social media suggested it was an attempt to get rid of the forum entirely.

“Nobody had any plans on eliminating the public forum, but there’s always a handful of people that accuse you of doing that,” Reynolds said.

After City Clerk Connie Shaffer read a number of submitted comments from individuals critical of the move during the June 2 meeting, council members voted unanimously to reinstate the public forum and attendance. Councilman John Reed said that was done in part because the state clarified that public buildings weren’t subject to the same occupancy guidelines as retail establishments.

Members of the public can attend starting with the June 23 meeting, with social-distancing practices in place and masks recommended.

“I understand the concerns about keeping everybody safe, but this was a bridge too far,” said Parkersburg Sue Ellen Waybright, who frequently attends and speaks at council meetings. “It’s important to see the councilpeople eye to eye, view their non-verbals and have them do the same. … There’s a whole level of communication that happens outside the words and we weren’t given that opportunity.”

The Wood County Board of Education has held online Zoom meetings since schools and offices were shut down in March, with board members and administrators all attending remotely. The district actually saw an uptick in public participation during the online meetings, averaging about 50 members of the public per session.

Those numbers have dropped slightly in recent months, and board members and administrators have begun attending meetings in person while wearing masks and social distancing. Those meetings are still being shared online via Zoom.

Board President Rick Olcott said the online meetings will likely end this month.

“The June 23 meeting is planned to be the last meeting where we ask the public to not join in person,” Olcott said. “It is my belief we will continue to offer an online access, as our meeting room does have a limit on capacity.”

Olcott said some of the student recognitions planned for June 23 will be in-person.

Superintendent Will Hosaflook said July 6 will be the first meeting where members of the public are allowed to attend, but restrictions may still apply.

“We may have to limit how many people attend due to the size of the room,” he said. “If we have to limit the number of people, we will continue to utilize Zoom. All restrictions will be based off of the governor’s guidance.”

PENNSYLVANIA

The City of Washington, Pa., held its last in-person public meeting in early March, before the state shut down.

The city council, a five member board, decided to hold Zoom meetings for April, May and June. The city posted the meeting agenda 24 hours beforehand for the public to view. The public was then encouraged to submit any public comments on the listed action items, which were read during the virtual meeting and were included in the meeting minutes.

“I was really expecting more public comment in the written fashion,” said Washington Mayor Scott Putnam. “Through all of it I think we had one public comment.”

Putnam said they didn’t receive any concerns or complaints about the way they held meetings during the pandemic. The council did allow for members of local media agencies to attend the Zoom meetings in an effort to maintain transparency during the pandemic.

The city plans to hold its first in-person meeting June 29, which will be a workshop-style meeting, followed by a voting meeting July 2. Hand hygiene will be encouraged and masks will be requested but not required.

“Obviously we’re looking at social distancing,” Putnam said. “We’ll be spreading our chairs out and trying to eliminate the use of a public microphone. I hope residents come and participate.”

Other municipalities, townships and boroughs across the region held similar virtual meetings through video or conference calls. Many of those were closed to the public and the media, though meeting minutes were published on municipal websites afterwards.

Some councils continued to meet in person through the pandemic, but maintained masks, social distancing and a limit of 10 people gathered in one space, per the Pennsylvania regulations for most of March, April and May.

OHIO

The city council in Warren, Ohio, has been holding its meetings virtually throughout much of the pandemic, said Brenda Smith, clerk of the council. The officials’ first in-person meeting was on June 10.

“We had the room set up to comply with social distancing and that meant we only had room for about 30 residents to attend our meetings,” Smith said. “Everyone in the room was required to wear a mask before entering.”

Findlay city council has met in person on the first and third Tuesday of each month through the pandemic. All members of council, the administration, city officials, the public and speakers sit in the “audience” area of the council chambers.

Council president John Harrington said all in attendance must stay 6 feet apart and they are asked to wear masks. He said the public is encouraged and invited to attend.

“Anyone with health issues or concerns are asked to stay away,” Harrington said. “To date, we have not had any issues with this procedure.”

All regular council meetings are live-streamed through YouTube and the Spectrum cable local public access channel. Harrington said these procedures will stay in place until further notice.

In Norwalk, the city council normally meets at the municipal court, but once COVID-19 hit, council meetings were moved to the gym at the Ernthausen Recreation Center to follow social distancing guidelines.

Mayor Dave Light said the meetings should have been live-streamed to the public a long time ago, but Norwalk started streaming their meetings after the pandemic began. Light asked Kelly Lippus, director of Huron County Chamber of Commerce, for assistance and each week she set up the camera for the meeting.

“We had some council members who wanted to do Zoom instead of being there in person,” Light said. “It’s been challenging. You can’t hear everything that’s going on.”

Light said the city is still working out some technical difficulties, such as a sound system, but officials hope it will be easier once they move back to the municipal court.

Susan Vessels, city council president in Marietta, said because the community is a rural one, she didn’t want to move meetings solely online.

“We had some older counselors that did not feel comfortable coming into a public setting and also to reduce the number of people in the room, we began in March doing joint Zoom and physical meetings,” she said. “About a quarter of the population (in the area) does not have high-speed internet access, so I felt strongly that we should continue to have the physical option for any person who wants to participate but does not have the ability.”

Vessels also started streaming city council meetings to Facebook in February and said they’ve had up to 2,000 views during a meeting.

“There are actually more options for people so they can come in, physically, or they can go to the Marietta, Ohio, Facebook page and receive a notification we’re going live,” she said. “We’re actually getting more people engaged. We haven’t had to address or ask anybody to leave (meetings) because of inability to social distance.”

Vessels said the council has made a big effort to ensure community participation. Along with council meetings, committee meetings are also available to the public through Zoom.

MICHIGAN

“I’m all Zoomed out,” Alpena County Commissioner John Kozlowski said on Thursday afternoon.

The District 8 commissioner represents Sanborn and Ossineke on the south end of Alpena County, Mich. He said there are pros and cons to meeting remotely, but he is ready to get back to in-person meetings, which started last week with subcommittee meetings, and continued this week with full committee meetings.

The full board will reconvene in person on June 30.

“My take on the Zoom meetings is … the negatives, to me, at least in my experience, have kind of outweighed the positives,” Kozlowski said. “I feel like you have a different type of conversation when you have a full in-person meeting as opposed to the Zoom meetings.”

He said on numerous occasions over the past several months that he has been “kicked out” of his own meetings he was trying to conduct as chairman of a committee, and that’s “a definite pain in the neck.”

On the plus side, Kozlowski said working remotely has been convenient and efficient for him.

“I don’t have to leave work, and I can do a Zoom meeting here,” he said. “I can be at home doing a Zoom meeting … There are other perks, like you can wait untill the last second and sign on and be wherever you are and log in.”

At the in-person meetings, social distancing was practiced and some people wore masks. They would then take them off whenever they spoke, Kozlowski said.

“To me, it’s difficult to do the communication with the mask on,” said Kozlowski, who did not wear a mask. He said the other commissioners were not wearing masks either.

Alpena County Commissioner Bill Peterson is the District 4 commissioner, serving a portion of Alpena Township. Peterson, who is chairman of the finance committee, said Wednesday’s in-person meeting went well, and the number of people in the room was limited.

Public comment was still conducted remotely and chairs were spaced out with six feet between each person.

“All the department heads were given a time to be there, and they showed up for their time, so they weren’t sitting around waiting to give their report,” Peterson said.

Peterson was a fan of the remote meetings, noting both the opportunity to meet with people out of the area, and the cost-savings of running meetings remotely.

“I thought everything worked pretty good with the Zoom calls, and even the MSN,” he said.

Going forward, Peterson said using remote video applications could be useful in some instances.

“It’s more efficient,” he said of the Zoom meetings. “The only problem I see with Zoom is when you get two or three people trying to talk.

“Which is sometimes good — you can mute them,” he added with a chuckle.

As for public comment, he said that there wasn’t much of it when the Zoom meetings were going on.

“If somebody wants to express something, it’s kind of hard for them to get on,” Peterson said. “For a lot of those people, it’s not something they do every day.”

Anne Gentry, executive director of the Alpena Downtown Development Authority, said the DDA is still conducting virtual board meetings throughout June.

The board is still deciding how to allow the public to attend, whether in person or online.

Gentry said the virtual meetings have been shorter, and “it’s nice to have the flexibility to call in or video in without having to leave your storefront.”

She said when making tough decisions or brainstorming, there’s no substitute for meeting in person.

In the Upper Peninsula, Don Piche is chairman of the Keweenaw County Board of Commissioners. He said Wednesday was the first board meeting held in person since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

“We kept our distance and everything in the courthouse,” Piche said. “And the public was by Zoom. So then that worked out pretty good.”

He is glad to be back to in-person meetings because he said “you can’t get nothing done on these Zoom meetings.”

He said many of the people in the U.P. live in rural areas where the internet connection isn’t as good, making things hard for the meetings to run smoothly.

“Even the ones that have good internet service, it’s kind of spotty,” he said. “You’re talking over each other, I don’t care for it.”

KANSAS

In Lawrence, Kan., city and county meetings are being held over Zoom, and both governments have enabled and encouraged the public to comment virtually while allowing for those without access to technology to do so in person.

The Douglas County Commission is set to resume in-person meetings on June 24, but throughout the pandemic, the public has been able to make public comment by using the “raise hand” feature of Zoom, Douglas County communications specialist Karrey Britt said.

The Lawrence City Commission has both general public comment, which may only be accepted in written form 24 hours in advance of a meeting, and public comment on specific agenda items, which members of the public can comment on remotely or in person at the meeting.

All live meetings and past meetings can be found on the city’s Youtube page.

When the City Commission resumes in person meetings, city spokesperson Porter Arneill said people will still be allowed to participate virtually in order to help manage social distancing. Arneill said that the number of people wishing to attend the meetings in person may have to be limited to 22 due to confined space.

The public has been taking advantage of the opportunity to comment during virtual meetings, Arneill said, noting that the amount of people commenting on agenda items remains fairly consistent to what occurred at in-person meetings pre-pandemic.

On Tuesday night, however, a group of protesters took to City Hall chambers instead of using the virtual option. About three dozen people were part of the protest, but only about two dozen went into the chambers, according to a reporter from the Lawrence Journal-World who was present.

The group was demanding that the City Commission defund the Lawrence Police Department and that city leaders use their connections to address what they said is the unjust detention of Lawrence resident Rontarus Washington, Jr. All the city’s commissioners were attending the meeting virtually.

— Reporter Michael Erb contributed to this story.

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