Virtual government a tough new normal in pandemic

At a council meeting last year, Millsboro town council members Larry Gum, Michelle Truitt and James Kells listen to a presentation. times have changed amid the COVID-19 pandemic as Monday night Millsboro conducted its first virtual town council session. Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe

From their homes, their offices, over the telephone and through apps such as Zoom, WebEx or Youtube where they connect with wifi, government bodies are wrestling with the challenges of a pandemic-brought reality.

Elected officials must figure out how to conduct public business from largely private locations.

“This is a challenge for all of us,” noted state school board president Whitney Sweeney during the board’s April 6 meeting.

The remark came as one public commenter apologized after struggling to unmute their microphone so they could be heard. It’s just one of the new nuances facing public meetings.

Gov. John Carney’s state of emergency, declared March 12 and amended many times since that date to now restrict gatherings to no more than 10 people, has spawned twists and tweaks to the governmental public meeting flow.

Technology, teleconference connections and virtual sessions are for the foreseeable future the new norm, replacing traditional public meetings amid shelter-at-home directives.

“Welcome to the town of Millsboro’s first virtual town council,” said Millsboro Mayor Michelle Truitt prior to the start of the April 6 session. “We’re so glad that you could join us and hope that you are following the stay-at-home orders to keep you and your family safe. So, keep that in mind as we navigate tonight’s first virtual meeting.”

Tuesday morning, April 7, Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson offered a virtual welcome to what was a first in county council history.

“Good morning members of council. Good morning members of the public, listening to the first-ever virtual county council meeting,” Mr. Lawson said.

For Sussex County government, public meetings have been modified to restrict public access during meetings of the board of adjustment, planning and zoning and county council. “We are limiting the number of in-person meetings conducted and have begun virtual meetings using teleconference and video technologies,” said Mr. Lawson.

Through technology, the county offers call-in public commentary, and its live video stream allows viewers to watch as charts, graphs and any informational material are presented to the elected officials.

“This allows the public to view the materials being discussed in real time,” said Sussex County Public Information Officer Chip Guy.
In addition to the live streams and call-in option, Sussex County meeting agendas posted online will note the option for the public to email comments in advance.

Milton resident Keith Steck, vice president of Delaware Coalition for Open Government whose mission is to promote and defend the people’s right to transparency and accountability in government, said he believes honest efforts are being made to keep the public in the loop.

“I think we all recognize it’s a struggle; the fact that governments are trying to do the best they can, given the situation,” said Mr. Steck.

Gov. Carney’s April 3 order authorized that all meetings of public bodies be conducted electronically until further notice, either by means of telephone conference call or video-conference call.

Guidelines of his directive state:

• Technology used must permit members of the public body to hear the comments of and speak to all those participating, and members of the public to hear the comments of and speak to such members of the public body contemporaneously. Public participants must be permitted to electronically access presentation materials and submit questions or comments;

• Each member of the public body will identify him or herself before speaking so that members of the public are able to hear the comments of the members of the public body;

• Notice requirements of public meetings will continue as required by law and will include the electronic information necessary for participation. Meetings already noticed shall be updated as soon as practicable with the information necessary for members and the public to participate electronically; and

• All other rules and procedures applicable to public meetings shall be followed.

Amid the coronavirus crisis, around the First State there has been change, postponement and cancellation by governing bodies.

Dagsboro Town Council, which instituted social distancing at its March 16 meeting, cancelled its monthly meeting for April. Several other municipalities have followed suit with no public meeting notices on their calendars for April.

With staggered seating, Dagsboro town council and attendees at the March 16 meeting practice social distancing, a method to help reduce the spread of coronavirus spread when in the presence of other people.

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

That is set to change on Tuesday, according to Traci McDowell, Dover’s city clerk, as the city prepares to use teleconferencing to conduct business.

“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.

Dover City Manager Donna Mitchell said WebEx is the same software that Kent County Levy Court utilizes for its teleconference meetings. She sat in on a virtual Kent County Levy Court meeting a couple of weeks ago and was impressed by the technology.

“It is, in fact, the same software (Kent) County used,” Mrs. Mitchell said, about Dover’s upcoming plans. “I attended by phone, the (Kent) County meeting (a couple of weeks ago), 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.”

In Dewey Beach, the town was scheduled to hold its monthly commission meeting Friday. There was an online live meeting broadcast option.

In Seaford, the next regular meeting of city council is set for Tuesday in council chambers at city hall on High Street. The city is working to make the session available to the public, which cannot attend, according to Seaford City Manager Charles Anderson.

“In accordance with the governor’s directive, that meeting in essence will be closed to the public and will be livestreamed. We’ve never done that. We’ve got a consultant coming in early next week to set us up. I’m crossing my fingers that goes well,” said Mr. Anderson.

On Seaford’s agenda is need-to-do business. “It’s things that have to get done; health insurance renewals, bids,” said Mr. Anderson. “We don’t have board of adjustment or anything like that this month. We did postpone public hearings. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get to those next month. We’re taking this kind of one day at a time.”

Historically, Seaford does not offer public commentary at council meetings unless there is a scheduled public hearing.

“Our agenda has not changed,” said Mr. Anderson. “And there is no public hearing on this agenda upcoming. So, we don’t have the need for public comment. If we do have one with a public hearing, then we will have to institute some option to allow the public comment.”

The town of Laurel plans to hold its April 20 council session in town hall with an agenda limited to only urgent, necessary items. The meeting will be open to the public, under social distancing parameters, said Laurel Mayor John Shwed said.

“We generally don’t have a very large attendance, unless there is very controversial item on the agenda,” said Mayor Shwed. “So, we are going to try to have a traditional meeting on April 20. We’ve cut ourselves down to one meeting a month. What we’ve done is we have cut it down to the just the bare essentials, critical items that need the vote by the council.”

For now, there is no live stream or public phone-in options in Laurel.

“Of course, Laurel is not a town that has unlimited funds with access to all kinds of fancy electronic technology and broadcast and allow people to speak and all of that stuff,” said Mayor Shwed. “In the meantime, the town manager is looking into what it would take to get the meeting on some kind of video, where people can watch it remotely … and perhaps ask a question remotely.”

Mayor Shwed does not anticipate a large public attendance. He added that only the mayor, council members and necessary staff will attend on behalf of the town. The meeting, Mayor Shwed said, will likely mirror press conferences of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and President Trump.

“Even with the president, when he holds a press conference, he’s got reporters sitting six feet apart and everything else. Again, he has got more than 10 in the room,” said Mayor Shwed. “So, we’re going to do that with our audience seating. We’re going to space the seating out.”

Mayor Shwed emphasized the council agenda will only address necessary items.

“Anything that is really critical to keep the town legally moving,” said Mayor Shwed. “Obviously, we want to keep it moving from an economic development point of view. If we have got a business coming to town and they need a piece of land somewhere on Rt. 13 or somewhere … we’re going to try to move on that. It’s too critical.”

School board business

School boards are also finding ways to conduct their business as the situation dictates.

The state school board’s April 6 meeting wasn’t its first virtual meeting; they met virtually in March to vote on altering charters for several schools. The board utilized GoToMeeting, a format that Lake Forest School District similarly utilized for their regular school board meeting this month.

Users could log in online, or call in by phone.

Using the chat box function, the state board allowed people to sign up for public comment, and gave those who called in an opportunity to request to speak, as well. Several people participated during the public comment session.

One board member’s mic saw some difficulties, though he was able to vote successfully on an action item later.

Appoquinimink School District’s board held its first virtual meeting last month, where the district rolled out its remote learning plan.

The board and district officials met at their Odessa board room space. The meeting was live streamed to the public on Youtube, with the stream garnering more than 800 views while live.

The district faced some technical difficulties, and switched to a secondary channel before the stream started. A second meeting, held in April, was live streamed through Youtube.

Capital School District opted for WebEx for its regular board of education meeting.

During the meeting, Superintendent Dan Shelton explained that the Citizens Budget Oversight Committee met virtually that week as well.
“They were actually your guinea pigs for this public meeting form,” he noted to the board.

However, the district had quickly embraced virtual meetings for in-district conversations to plan for the extended closure earler, Dr. Shelton said.

“In the first two weeks of the pandemic, the Capital School District logged more Zoom hours than any other organization in the state,” Dr. Shelton said. “And I was the top Zoomer in the state. We were very, very, very busy.”

While some quickly adapted, Secretary of Education Susan Bunting noted that other boards were still figuring out the new formatting.
The board voted to extend its period for accepting 2020-2021 school calendars as local school boards adjusted.

“These plans were due, according to state code, on the 20th of April and some of our districts have had difficulty getting their boards together,” Dr. Bunting said at the meeting. “Not all boards are as technologically savvy as our state board of education, and you also have some boards where, … if you have an in-person meeting, by the time you have the superintendent and the executive secretary and the board members and the assistant superintendent, you might exceed your number of 10 which is supposed to be allowed as a maximum.”

Public participation?

Across the nation, under the COVID-19 umbrella, there have been sporadic online reports of journalists being denied access to public meetings with less than 10 in attendance; public records; staff at public hospitals for information on the pandemic.

Mr. Steck says his coalition has not experienced that at this point in the First State.

“From what I can tell they seem to be trying to capture the information,” said Mr. Steck. “They are trying in the state of Delaware it seems like to the extent that meetings can continue with modifications, obviously.”

Mr. Steck said he understands the dilemma public bodies face.

“The fact that public hearings are supposed to be held, and they really can’t, so that really slows down business as usual,” said Mr. Steck. “Let’s say, somebody has put in a request for something, whether it’s a conditional use or a subdivision application, whatever. You can’t have a hearing because, one, you can’t do a public presentation, and two, the public doesn’t have the opportunity to comment at those hearings. I know that really complicates things.”

“I think it gets logistically complicated to conduct that kind of business. If the towns don’t have the provisions for doing something electronically then they just don’t have the meetings,” said Mr. Steck. “What I think also happens is that it gets complicated because there are people who do not have computer access; people who don’t have internet access. Maybe they don’t have money to pay for cable, or they don’t have a computer at home. It makes it harder.”

Members of the public who joined Sussex County Council’s virtual meeting last week had the opportunity to make comments during the agenda’s Public Comment section, administered by a moderator.

There was one phone-in participant: Mr. Steck.

Similar opportunity was available to listeners tuned to Millsboro’s council meeting, but there were no takers on the public commentary option.

“I am happy to see that they are trying to do this, trying to get people the opportunity to participate. How it’s going to work, it’s hard to say. But the fact that they trying to do it, I have to applaud them for that,” said Mr. Steck. “I think we all recognize that, again, these aren’t the best circumstances.”

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

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