Editor's Note: "First in an ongoing series that will take in-depth look at the pandemic and its affect on our community."
Necessity is the mother of invention.
Local government officials and administrators got a big lesson in how true that cliché actually is during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The onset of the pandemic brought about lockdowns and social distancing. The work of local government did not stop. In many ways, it actually increased. Not being able to meet in person meant meetings and business that had always been done face-to-face now had to be done online. City halls and government centers throughout the country were replaced by Zoom and Microsoft TEAMS.
“At the very start, it was a little nerve-wracking,” said Morrison County Commissioner Jeffrey Jelinski. “There was a lot of, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ There was definitely a little bit of a learning experience, but I think we gained a well-rounded respect for everything we were able to do.”
Randall City Manager Matt Pantzke said his small town of only 625 people didn’t have WiFi at City Hall prior to the pandemic. Adjusting to the new, virtual world of online meetings meant physical upgrades to the building along with the learning curve with which city staff and council members had to deal.
“All of us in City Hall, throughout the year we had a variety of outside meetings that we normally had to travel to,” Pantzke said. “Now we were doing everything on Zoom or Microsoft TEAMS. It was definitely a big change. I hadn’t done anything like it before COVID. I remember, about a year ago, I was invited to a Zoom meeting. I didn’t have any idea what Zoom was.”
A chance to learn
With the new technology came opportunities for everyone to learn. The technology itself was a hurdle for some to get over. Aside from that, local officials found out how to get work done even when they were unable able to meet in person.
Little Falls City Council President Brad Hircock said, prior to COVID-19, the extent of his experience with video chat platforms was using Facetime to chat with his children in Chicago. He said meeting online — which the Little Falls City Council did for exactly one year — definitely took some getting used to, but they could still take care of business.
“I don’t know that anybody particularly liked it, but it was a way to still meet when we couldn’t get together in person,” Hircock said. “You had to listen a little more. You couldn’t see anybody’s body language when they were talking, so you had to be careful not to take things the wrong way. There were a few different rules that we had to go by. But we were able to get things done.”
Jelinski said he prides himself on the many boards and committees on which he serves as a representative of Morrison County. As such, he attends several meetings each week.
Though he stressed nothing can truly replace the value of in-person meetings, he felt an important lesson has been learned during the COVID-19 experience. That, he said, is that business can still be conducted in an effective manner even when the participants are not in the same room.
There are drawbacks to meeting online, he said, such as needing a good internet connection. For the most part, the meetings in which he was a part went off “remarkably well.”
As society enters a post-COVID world, Jelinski said it is also important to take stock of the learning it foisted upon everyone.
“I think we have to remind ourselves, COVID stinks,” he said. “There have been a lot of bad things that have happened in the last year because of COVID, and I’m certainly not taking anything away from any of the families who have lost a loved one. My heart truly goes out to them. But I think we have to [look beyond] the hard stuff as much as we can and look at the positives. That is, what we have learned.
“I think we have learned something that is second-to-none. We can get business done without having to meet face-to-face every week or every month or whatever,” he added.
In some ways, it also provided opportunities to evolve.
Pantzke said in Randall, all of the packets for city council meetings and related materials were being printed out and members were receiving hard copies each month. Meeting remotely provided a necessity to deliver those documents virtually, thereby creating another kind of learning experience.
“I think, from a council standpoint, everyone really used this as an opportunity to embrace technology,” Pantzke said. “Now we use iPads to get all of that material to the council members. That’s something we plan to continue doing.”
The opportunity for local officials to learn is one thing, but the pandemic also brought to light some ways in which government can be more efficient. This, of course, ends up creating benefits for the public at-large in the long run.
Jelinski said, as a member of the Association of Minnesota Counties, he was having to make a trip to St. Paul once per month. He said the trek alone sometimes took seven hours round-trip because of traffic, all for a two-hour meeting. Aside from that trip, his meetings were regularly taking him to places like St. Cloud and Alexandria.
County commissioners don’t receive a per diem, but they are reimbursed for mileage.
“If I’m not making that trek and I’m doing business from my home office or the government center, that’s a big savings,” Jelinski said. “Even if I don’t have internet at home, it’s 12 miles from my house to the Government Center. Think of the savings alone on that versus driving 100 miles to go to these meetings every month.
“We have the opportunity to save the residents of Morrison County $5, $50, $400 a month; whatever it may be,” he added. “I’m hopeful that the rest of the world sees my vision in this.”
It has also made officials more present to represent and serve their constituents.
Hircock said, prior to the pandemic, at times it was difficult for him to make Economic Development Association meetings because of his work schedule. Meeting virtually allowed him to be there when he may not have otherwise had the time.
“It allowed meetings to take place a little more frequently,” he said. “I was able to step into a different office during my lunch break and be there for the meeting rather than having to take the time to drive to City Hall, wait for everyone to get there, have the meeting and get back.”
Pantzke agreed with Jelinski’s assertion that, in some cases, there is no replacement for in-person meetings. That said, it has freed up some of his time.
In the end, he simply had more time to get things done.
“Rather than spending a few hours on the road, I could get done with my meeting and pretty much immediately get back to whatever I was doing before,” Pantzke said.
For Jelinski, it has also opened up an opportunity for him to represent Morrison County and the state of Minnesota on a national stage. He was recently nominated to join a nationwide 911 task force which meets once per week in Washington, D.C.
Virtual meetings will allow him to be a part of the conversation without ever leaving his home in Morrison County.
“I made it very clear right away that I was not going to Washington, D.C. for the meetings,” he said. “They were very clear that all of the meetings will be remote.”
Going forward, Jelinski, Pantzke and Hircock all believed in-person meetings are vital to continue the important work of local government. But, in order to make government more efficient fiscally, with its time and even the safety of its members, there will also likely be an online component even after social distancing and gathering restrictions are in the rearview mirror.
“Why in the world would we have people going out of the county for a meeting during the winter in Minnesota?” Jelinski said.
Throughout the experience, officials have learned that there are ways other than the status quo to conduct business. For all of the misery COVID-19 has created during the past 14 months, it has also created opportunities for growth for those both inside and outside of local government.
“I think we’ve learned to be more adaptable,” Hircock said. “I think we’ve learned to be more flexible. Hopefully everybody has learned to be a little more patient with everyone else. As a community — whether it’s a small business owner or somebody who has been unable to work because of the pandemic — I hope we’ve learned to think of things from the other person’s perspective.”
Some entities will forever be live-streaming their meetings going forward because of the pandemic, creating more access for community members. Others will be able to save money.
Most importantly, officials have found that when changes need to be made — large or small — there are ways to do it. After all, necessity is the mother of invention.
“I can’t say we have had any monumental changes here, but we have embraced the ones we’ve had to make,” Pantzke said. “Sometimes you have to have your hand forced to realize there is another way of doing things.”