by Tami Tanoue, CIRSA Executive Director (updated March 18, 2020)
I’ve heard that a few people are concerned about the coronavirus/COVID19 pandemic. OK, that’s maybe an understatement. Who isn’t concerned? If nothing else, the absence of toilet paper on grocery store shelves is a regular reminder that we are living with the curse of interesting times. So it’s no wonder that governing bodies are among those hunkering down for the onset of the zombie apocalypse, I mean, undertaking prudent actions for the safety of their citizens and employees as well as themselves.
This brings me to the question of the week: “Can we continue to hold open, public governing body meetings, but keep the public out?”
And thus, we have another clash between competing interests: a legitimate desire to incorporate “social distancing” into governing body work, versus the transparency mandates of the Open Meetings Law! But can these competing interests be harmonized? Yes, and one of our members has shown us how.
First, you will need some kind of teleconference or videoconference capability, so that one, some, or all members of the governing body, as well as staff members (such as the manager, department heads) and consultants (such as the municipal attorney) can participate remotely.
Second, there’s not an optimal workaround for having your council chambers or board room open to the public. Making your facility available for public attendance would maximize the public’s opportunity to be present, but you’ll have some staffing needs, and you’ll be exposing people to contact with one another.
Some municipalities have gone to 100 percent web conferencing or other electronic format, allowing the public to attend only via the same technology. This approach protects anyone who might otherwise have had to come to city or town hall for the meeting. However, it does exclude those citizens who, for whatever reason, can’t use the technology you’ve chosen as your meeting format. So it’s not optimal from an open meetings standpoint.
But in times like these, maybe you can’t let the “great” be the enemy of the “best we can do under the circumstances.” You may need to be prepared with a back-up plan for providing access to those individuals who can’t use the technology you’ve chosen, and make a note on your agenda about the contact point for citizens who have questions about access.
Third, if you’ve ever participated in an awkward conference call (people interrupting, dogs barking , etc.) then imagine that times 7 or more people! The social dynamics and cues that facilitate communication can be lost. This means that the discipline of respecting the chair of the meeting, as well as self-discipline, become even more important than in a face-to-face meeting. And if you’ve chosen to share your technology with the public, you’ll need a method to mute and unmute people so that you don’t get interruptions during agenda items that aren’t open to public comment.
Fourth, some topics absolutely will not lend themselves to “calling it in.” An example would be a quasi-judicial matter. How are you going to manage witnesses, testimony, and exhibits, as well as have the opportunity to observe things like witness credibility, over the phone or on a monitor? Not gonna work! And, a failed attempt to conduct such a hearing is a far riskier proposition than setting it for a later date to be conducted in person in the council chambers or board room.
And finally, don’t just switch to a teleconference or videoconference format on an impromptu basis. Adopt rules of procedure that permit you to use this format, and then follow the rules! Take the excellent Northglenn example, and adapt it to your own needs. Additionally, check whether any existing ordinances need changes to allow these formats, and if you have multiple bodies in the organization that desire to “go virtual,” consider adopting a standard set of procedures for all bodies to follow. Finally, do several tests of whatever conferencing platform you decide to use, to make sure that it’s workable for everyone, including the public.
Love Governing body meetings in the time of cholera coronavirus can still happen in a safe and legally sound way. They may just take a little more planning.
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