“All right, everybody ready?”
Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris sat in an unassuming corner of his home, looking at the small lens just above his laptop monitor. City Attorney Maria Cisneros gave a small smile from her home office and City Clerk Kris Luedke glanced at her computer and gave an affirmative “yup.”
“All righty, here we go,” said Harris, who proceeded to give a rap of the gavel on his table and call the March 17 Golden Valley City Council meeting to order.
In attendance were Harris, Luedke, Cisneros, City Manager Tim Cruikshank and Councilmembers Gillian Rosenquist, Kimberly Sanberg, Larry Fonnest and Maurice Harris, all videochatting from their homes through an application called WebEx. For the duration of the meeting, the council chambers at City Hall remained empty.
Conducting virtual meetings like this might be the new normal to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Though the virus (which originated in China late last year) reveals itself as a flu-like illness in most, it poses a slightly larger threat to populations with suppressed immune systems, like the elderly or those who suffer from chronic illnesses. Local COVID-19 outbreaks have prompted the shuttering of many businesses and public buildings. Recommendations have been made from several organizations overseeing the outbreak, which include the call to minimize group gatherings and distance those gathered by several feet at all times.
This makes having any sort of meeting difficult, especially those required to be public by law. This includes meetings of city councils, planning commissions and boards of zoning and appeals.
Protected by statute
However, the law that guides what is and isn’t okay for public meetings, the Open Meeting Law, does offer some provisions for crises. According to the Minnesota Data Practice Office, a meeting of a public body can take place “via telephone or other electronic means” if it is determined that an in-person meeting is “not practical or prudent because of a health pandemic or an emergency declared under chapter 12.” Gov. Tim Walz issued such a declaration March 13.
Under pandemic rules, the law still asks that public bodies “to the extent practical ... allow the public to monitor the meeting remotely.” The cities of New Hope, Robbinsdale, Crystal and Golden Valley all have the technology to make that happen. The videochat feature is provided by WebEx and a live-stream of the chat is made possible by Northwest Community Television. For parts of the meeting devoted to citizen input, like the open forum and public hearings, cities provide a telephone hotline for residents to call and wait their turn to speak, just as they would in a physical meeting.
Some cities don’t have those capabilities and can make the case that a public meeting under pandemic circumstances isn’t “to the extent practical.”
Excelsior conducted a March 16 city council meeting in the council chambers sealed off to the public. The mayor was present and the council members were conferenced in via telephone. The meeting was recorded, but not live-streamed; residents weren’t able to view what happened in the meeting until the video was uploaded the next day to the city website.
Every city is handling the law and pandemic recommendations differently.
Though New Hope City Hall is technically closed through April 3, the City Council conducted its March 16 work session with its doors open and planned to do so for the March 23 regular meeting and the April 2 Board of Zoning and Appeals meeting. Both the public and voting members are invited to attend the meeting in-person or virtually. The public will be admitted into the building and chairs will be distanced 6 feet apart.
Robbinsdale City Hall is also closed to the public, but city officials allowed the public to enter and sit in distanced seating for the March 17 City Council meeting. City Manager Marcia Glick said the next meeting to grapple with will be April 7.
“If we need to go to WebEx, we will be set up similar to what Golden Valley is doing,” said Glick. “Depends on how long we’re in the current normal.”
The cyber trial
Golden Valley’s first virtual City Council meeting went well enough, but the agenda was considerably light. In a phone interview before the meeting, Cruikshank praised the IT folks who had been “working overtime” to ensure the meeting would go smoothly.
“We’re learning at breakneck speed, and to be fair, this is going to be a bit of a test tonight,” he said.
The test had its ups and downs. When it came time for the Pledge of Allegiance, the audio garbled, at times prioritizing certain audio channels over others to create a less-than-in-unison recitation. All votes had to be done via a roll call, to ensure everyone’s vote was understood correctly.
The council’s first foray into resident input proved a success: resident Kathy Waldhouser called in during a public hearing to commend an ordinance related to the 2020 census.
Cruikshank said there were some remaining issues to work out with the virtual meeting, like the fact that the phone number residents use to speak to the council is a long-distance number and wasn’t a toll-free call to everyone.
“We don’t want there to be a cost for anybody,” he said.
Cruikshank said Golden Valley may consider expanding the virtual meetings to other “quasi-judicial” bodies like the planning commission and board of zoning and appeals.
“It all depends on the duration of our ongoing situation,” Cruikshank said.