The Florida Constitution and Sunshine laws require local governments meet in person, but Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended that mandate with a March 20 executive order that will last through Nov. 1.
(TNS) — Susan Oyer has been attending Boynton Beach city commission meetings for a long time, but she hasn't minded the pandemic-imposed move to online hearings.
The virtual world, Oyer points out, has its benefits.
"I don't have to look good because the camera's off," Oyer said. "And I get to eat dinner while it's going on."
City commissions and their advisory boards throughout Palm Beach County went to virtual communication in March or April after the rising infection rates of coronavirus shut down city halls and made in-person meetings unworkable.
Despite a recent uptick in reported deaths in the county resulting from Covid-19, local city commissions are moving to re-opening their meetings to the public.
On Monday, West Palm Beach celebrated its return to in-person meetings with an introductory performance of the national anthem by a student choir from The Faith Place, a group that provides homework help, STEAM lessons and other educational services to the community.
The fanfare drew applause from the commissioners, mayor and the several people who’d trickled into the auditorium.
The officials on the dais were spaced apart and shielded from one another by newly erected clear plastic dividers. Even the reporter’s station at the foot of the stage had a shield. Some of the public seating rows were blocked, with off limits signs taped to seat backs served to space the rest of the seating.
Mayor Keith James thanked the choir, “for providing inspiration in these sometimes dark times.”
The Florida Constitution and Sunshine laws require local governments meet in person, but Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended that mandate with a March 20 executive order that allowed cities to use technology like Zoom or Webex to hold virtual public meetings.
DeSantis has since extended that order to last through Nov. 1.
City commission and town council meetings have never been a big draw. Hearings can be ponderous and steeped in nuances and minutiae only the most-committed gadfly could find absorbing.
There was some concern that going to video communication would impact interest even further, especially among those not as technologically adept, and keep residents from getting involved in civic life.
But, in some cases, the opposite has been true and engagement has crept up. Those wanting to attend meetings no longer have to get in their car, schlep to city hall and sit in uncomfortable seating for 3 or 4 hours. Just a click on your home computer and you're in.
"That was part of our concern," said Mayor Scott Singer of Boca Raton, where the five-person council has met virtually since March. "But we've learned the virtual platform allows us to have a much higher number of people participating.”
In Tequesta, Mayor Abby Brennan said online video streams of council meetings in her village have proven popular and are likely here to stay.
"We recognize that when we were doing the Zoom meetings… we had far more people zooming in than we had in chambers," Brennan said
Some cities have already returned to in-person meetings, combining it in a "hybrid" model with online hearings.
Boynton Beach has held in-person commission meetings since August. Mayor Steven Grant sits in a City Hall conference room with members of the public while the rest of the commission participates remotely..
Oyer has been attending the past handful of meetings in person and said she feels safe doing so.
"There’s not a lot of people in the room," Oyer said. "If there is, everyone is spaced out. Everyone is wearing their mask. When you speak, you’re standing on the opposite side of the room from the mayor – at least 10, 15 feet from anyone else."
County commissioners have also grappled with the "new normal" around meetings.
In June, the county implemented seating limitations at meetings, placing red laminated signs on seats that read: "Please do not use due to social distancing" Commissioners were separated by plastic dividers placed between seats on the dais.
Even though the county mandated the wearing of facemasks in public in June, the rule was not strictly enforced immediately inside the commission chambers, Commissioners were often criticized for not wearing a mask while on the dais although, more recently, they have been keeping on their face coverings while speaking.
People who come up to the microphone for public comment are allowed to take off their mask, and staff squirt the microphone with some sort of cleaning agent after each speaker.
Not everyone is comfortable with the removal of facemasks, even when social distancing protocols are in place.
During a city commission meeting on Oct. 6, Boynton Beach Commissioner Christina Romelus objected when a resident approached the podium and removed his facemask in order to speak.
Grant, Boynton's mayor, is a proponent of mask wearing, but dismissed Romelus' complaint, saying the resident was spaced more than 10 feet from anyone else.
"You are taking a risk," Grant said. "But taking in the mail is a risk sometimes."
How's your city handling city commission meetings? Here's a sampling:
Mayor Scott Singer said the city council may hold its next scheduled meeting in-person for the first time since March.
But the gathering won't take place in the council's cramped chambers at City Hall. Instead, the city is moving meetings for the time being to the 6500 Building on Congress Avenue that allows for social distancing. The city has been using GoToMeeting, a video communication service, to broadcast meetings and Singer said there have been no issues.
So why not stick to the virtual world alone?
“It bares consideration, but i think people would like to appear in person," Singer said. "It’s an opportunity to get close to local government again.”
The city passed an ordinance this year that permits video conferencing through the end of 2020, Mayor Steven Grant said.
Since a budget hearing in July, the city has held some in-person meetings in a City Hall community room. At two of the meetings, the room has included up to 15 members of the public.
Grant said it's imperative to allow residents access to their elected officials, especially those who may struggle with technology.
"Giving them that opportunity to come to the meetings and speak during public comments, that's very important," Grant said.
A policy of virtual meetings-only will continue until at least Nov. 1, although city staff have begun planning for transitioning to in-person hearings, according to spokesperson Gina Carter.
"There are many things to consider in order to ensure the safety of participants," Carter said, "including wellness screenings, sanitation of shared items such as sign-in sheets/pens, mics and podiums, the effective and safe use of the space within the commission chambers.... as well as preparing for the technological challenges."
Little has changed in Jupiter since council members returned to in-person meetings this summer. The town is allowing residents not in attendance to email public comments. Those statements aren't read aloud during the meeting and are instead provided to council members beforehand.
Like many municipalities, Jupiter has long broadcasted its meetings online and archived the footage on its website.
Mayor Pam Triolo indicated this week the city will stick to online-only meetings for now. Since March, commissioners have convened at City Hall for meetings, but do so from their respective offices inside the building. The public is not permitted inside.
The city's board has not met since March 19 meeting went viral following an angry squabble between Triolo and Commissioner Omari Hardy. Hardy has since resigned from the commission in order to run for a State House seat.
The city was one of the few that never stopped holding in-person meetings – only once monthly – after the pandemic broke out.
"We modified our approach and went to a hybrid meeting model that allowed those who wanted to attend in person, including council members, to continue with in-person meetings," spokesperson Candice Temple said.
There were several safety features in place for those attending in public including temperature checks, socially distanced seating and a mask requirement.
Riviera Beach returned to in-person meetings on Oct. 7, shifting the gatherings to its Marina Events Center, which has a large ballroom more suited to social distancing than the city hall auditorium. City Manager Jonathan Evans gave a video walking tour of the Marina center, to prepare visitors for the health measures they’ll encounter. He posted it on the city Facebook page.
“We are going to make sure our residents are safe and can participate in their government,” Evans said. “We look forward to seeing your smiling faces behind these masks.”
Few Village Council meetings in Royal Palm Beach have been entirely virtual. Instead, council members opted for a hybrid format, with officials and staff in Village Meeting Hall, and the public and speakers joining via WebEx, a video conferencing program. While there have been a few technical issues with sound and people joining virtually, the meetings have gone smoothly.
The Indian Trail Improvement District's transition to virtual meetings in April got off to a rocky start. The April 15 board meeting was the target of so-called "Zoombombers," Internet trolls who bombard virtual meetings with offensive images and sounds. The meeting was shut down and restarted with more security protocols in place. After that meeting, Indian Trial moved to an upgraded version of Zoom with enhanced security features.
Wellington's council moved to virtual meetings in April following closures because of the pandemic. The council briefly returned to in-person meetings early in the summer, before cases of COVID-19 peaked in July.
The council moved back to virtual meetings until last month, when meetings finally returned to the councl chambers at Village Hall. Barriers have been put up between each official on the dais, and there are Plexiglass barriers in front of each podium for speakers. Masks are required inside Village Hall, and social distancing is enforced in the audience with seats blocked off.
Council members were relieved to be back in chambers. They successfully pushed to be back in Village Hall for in-person meetings before the final budget hearing for the coming year.
While the council has returned to in-person meetings, whether or not to continue virtual meetings has been left to the discretion of each village board.
After returning to in-person meetings on Oct. 5, Communications Director Kathleen Walter said the switch to virtual meetings and back again went off without major problems. “It was a big and quick transition that went smoothly due to preparation, planning and testing,” she said.
Since March, West Palm virtually conducted 16 commission meetings, 13 Community Redevelopment Agency meetings, eight mayor-commission work sessions, 13 agenda review meetings, and some 50 planning/zoning meetings. While commission and CRA meetings are back to being held in person, some public meetings will continue to be held virtually for the immediate future, the spokeswoman said.
“We saw many residents become more involved in the process and who are now learning about our city, how government works, and how they can be involved,” Walter said.
©2020 The Palm Beach Post, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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