Americans are looking to maintain as much normalcy as possible amid nationwide closures in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic and so are local governments.
Amid the uncertainty, Manhattan is exploring ways to accommodate comments from members of the public if city commission meetings are moved entirely online.
“I don’t think it’s about limiting the public access,” says Deputy City Manager Jason Hilgers. “It’s about coordinating their comments to you all and how we can do that without requiring them to show up and requiring staff to be here to actually make it real time.”
The meetings would be conducted via Zoom, a video conferencing service increasing in popularity as gatherings go digital and growing numbers of workers begin to telecommute. The chat function would have to be disabled to abide by open meeting requirements. Also, if two commissioners were to lose connection or power the body would no longer have a quorum and the meeting would have to halt or end altogether.
The Zoom meeting would then be broadcast on Manhattan’s usual online and television channels — Facebook Live, Cox cable channel 3, cityofmhk.com/tv. Commissioners also briefly discussed hosting the meetings on local radio in the period that sessions are online.
Commissioners Tuesday were interested in going further than the base open meeting requirements, though. The Kansas Open Meetings Act mandates meetings be made available for public viewing, but does not require public bodies to provide the public opportunity to comment during the proceeding.
“I think that’s part of government, I don’t know how not to do that,” says Mayor Usha Reddi. “I don’t want to not do that.”
City administration raised multiple possible ways to facilitate public comments that would limit or eliminate their need to interact face-to-face with the public while the pandemic is ongoing, including monitoring incoming Facebook comments — though that would require a staff member to use their judgment to filter comments for relevancy.
The idea that got the most traction required those wishing to have their comment heard in the meeting to submit their remarks electronically prior to the meeting. Mayor Pro Tempore Wynn Butler says that process also results in more concise comments as well.
“I think that’s just the sacrifice you have to make,” says Butler. “That’s transparent enough. You put the agenda [online], you tell them you’ve got to get [your comments]in 24 hours in advance and it’ll be shared with everybody and that’s good enough. It follows the law.”
Commissioner Mark Hatesohl says Zoom has worked “slick” for him in the past and would work as well as they can hope.
“I’d just as soon keep having meetings in person until we actually have a problem in the area,” says Hatesohl. “But let’s keep planning for how we do it and I think the Zoom thing is fine.”
Commissioner Aaron Estabrook proposed speaking with CivicPlus to see what programs they have available that could help facilitate public comments. He also said the COVID-19 pandemic makes open government even more vital.
“Government should be the most transparent during a crisis,” says Estabrook. “So I don’t necessarily think we should roll back.”
As they shift online, Commissioner Linda Morse says they should be prepared to face some technical difficulties and failures some nights.
“If something can’t be presented, then I think it needs to be postponed until a later time when it can legitimately be presented,” says Morse. “And not just half done.”
Mayor Reddi hoped the online production can get off the ground by Thursday’s Joint City/County/County meeting, but that was canceled Wednesday afternoon. She also raised the possibility of consolidating meetings to reduce potential exposure.