Dover preparing to go ‘tele’-style with city meetings

DOVER — The city of Dover has not hosted a public meeting since March 10, when the Council Committee of the Whole met at City Hall.

Little did anyone know at the conclusion of that evening’s proceedings that, in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, all public meetings would be halted throughout March and into the beginning of April.

That is set to change on April 13, according to Traci McDowell, Dover’s city clerk, as the city of Dover prepares to use teleconferencing to conduct city business after Gov. John Carney authorized on March 13 that all meetings of public bodies to be conducted electronically until further notice.

“We are planning to hold the April 13 council meeting and possibly an April 14 committee meeting using teleconferencing through (videoconferencing provider) WebEx,” Ms. McDowell said.

The governor’s state of emergency declaration allows the Delaware executive branch agencies to conduct public meetings electronically to prevent unnecessary public gatherings. This proclamation expands the authorization to include all public bodies throughout the state – including Kent County Levy Court, which has already conducted a couple of virtual meetings, the city of Dover, and other municipalities throughout the state.

Dover City Manager Donna Mitchell said it has been a challenge to keep the city’s business up to date as well as adjust to the challenging times by introducing city meetings via teleconferencing.

“There have been some long hours for myself and (my) staff to ensure city council is kept up to date,” Mrs. Mitchell said. “We do have a plan for conducting council and committee meetings, which we will be testing this week. It is, in fact, the same software (Kent) County used. I attended by phone, the (Kent) County meeting last week, and recognize that it does come with some hiccups, so we are going to do our best to understand the inner workings of the software this week.”

The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) held its first virtual public meeting on March 25 by utilizing WebEx, the same telecommunications platform that Dover will be using.

DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin said the WebEx system was put into place for safety first among employees and interested parties.

“In order to keep our employees and community safe, we must minimize group gatherings and maintain a distance of at least six feet,” said Secretary Garvin. “This could create a challenge to schedule a hearing, especially those required to be public by law. Our team acted quickly to coordinate with the Department of Technology and Information and with counsel from the Department of Justice to set up this virtual option to keep getting business done during the coronavirus period.”

Dover City Council President William “Bill” Hare said he is looking forward to getting back to a normal routine.

“It’s just a normal council meeting, we haven’t had one, and we’re going to try and do it (by teleconference),” President Hare said. “It’s a good (system) to have to keep people informed and if there’s anything that needs to be addressed it will be put on the agenda. We just can’t totally stop everything.

“I think until we can get back to normal, I think this can work and just strictly do the necessities that have to be done and I think it’ll work fine.”

Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen said the city should use any tools that are available in order to move the city’s business forward.

“Any tool that maintains the tenants of democracy is a valuable one,” Mayor Christiansen said. “I believe it should be used as the council president deems it to be vital that any meeting that is called is essential to the operation of the city and the continuity of the day-to-day operations for essential services. The charter calls for the mayor and city manager to make sure that happens.

“Myself, and the city manager, along with city staff, have been working together with other agencies to address the needs of our citizens. We along with the council president have participated in conference calls with Gov. Carney and his staff as well DEMA (Delaware Emergency Management Agency).”

The mayor added, “Our biggest and most important mission has been answering the phones at City Hall addressing the needs, concerns during this most unusual time providing them with information or referring them to resources.”

City Councilman Fred Neil praised Mrs. Mitchell’s work as Dover’s city manager and said he think she sees her job as providing for and protecting the public.

“I view using technology to hold city council meetings as a necessity, rather than ‘taking a chance,’” Mr. Neil said. “(Mrs. Mitchell) has been outstanding in keeping the council informed. However, there are things that by law the city council must act on which cannot be delegated to staff. We are guided by the city attorneys.

“I am very proud that the city council actions are transparent. Even during this pandemic, our actions must continue to be transparent. I look forward to rejoining my colleagues during this unplanned hiatus even if it is only electronically.”

Mrs. Mitchell said it has been a busy time for city staff with addressing public notices, preparing for a new budget and providing protection to its staff in the field. And, like so many others in the state, much of the work is being done at home.

“We have several employees that were provided used laptops that we had on hand to access our systems from home to work,” she said. “Our cloud-based systems are accessible from home for the most part. We have limited access to City Hall and have janitors working during those hours for sanitation purposes while staff is present.”

Mrs. Mitchell added the city has been working on an update to its COVID-19 information on its website as well as its Dover TV stations on Verizon and Comcast.

“This will be of tremendous help to the public with city operations,” she said.

Getting a head start

In an effort to get a head start on Dover City Council’s upcoming teleconferencing of its meetings, three Dover city councilmen took to Facebook Live on Monday night from the Dover City Hall’s conference room to discuss the “new normal” in the wake of coronavirus (COVID-19).

City Councilmen David Anderson, Roy Sudler Jr. and Ralph Taylor Jr. took the opportunity to reach out and answer any questions their constituents might have had.

Council President William “Bill” Hare and Sen. Trey Paradee also contributed to the Virtual Town Hall via cellphone.

It got started about 15 minutes late due to a technical glitch and an audience of around 15 people watched the proceedings.

Councilman Taylor said it was important to get information out to the citizens of Dover that might not have access to what is going on in the city.

“Information is the bottom line,” he said. “We’re at a time right now where newspapers and other media are providing a lot of information, but people need to hear our voices.”

Councilman Taylor said residents might not necessarily know that the city of Dover is holding off on power disconnections until the state of emergency has been lifted and that customers with outstanding utility bills as a result of COVID-19 can qualify for extended payment agreements for utility bills beginning with their March 2020 statement.

Those are some of the reasons why he wanted to make himself available.

Councilman Anderson said he wanted to let the citizens of Dover know that the government is still working and representing them.

“We’re about serious business and we’re still drafting ordinances, we’re still working on the new updated building ordinances and dealing with vacant buildings,” Councilman Anderson said. “We’re still working on solutions for safe communities.

“We’re working on a lot of important things for the city, including getting sanitation stations (portable restrooms) downtown. That was desperately needed.”

Councilman Taylor also talked about social distancing and preventive measures the community can take against COVID-19 as well as community safety.

Councilman Sudler said this is a time for the community of Dover to come together.

“This is a time for action and leading when it’s time to lead,” he said. “And knowing how to lead when it’s time to lead.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

Have a question, tip, or resources about the coronavirus pandemic? Submit it to our newsroom and we’ll do what we can to provide answers.