Governing online becoming new normal in Milford

Milford City Clerk Terri Hudson performs her duties at her desk in the City Hall office. (Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller)

MILFORD — When Gov. John Carney issued an emergency declaration March 13 discouraging public gatherings, City Council meetings had to become virtual.

Now, when city clerk Terri Hudson puts together the agendas for those meetings, she includes a Zoom link, as well as a phone number for those who don’t have access to a computer or reliable Wi-Fi.

“We also provide a reference to the governor’s emergency declaration and modifications, so that years down the road, when the agendas and minutes are pulled for various reasons, people will know why these meetings were held online,” Ms. Hudson said.

But the government itself has not moved online.

“We went through a period of time in April and May when we were allowing more people to work from home,” said city manager Mark Whitfield. “Some people were working from home for a week then would come into the office for a week. Some people did it sporadically.”

Since June 1, he said everyone has been back in the office for the most part. But that doesn’t mean internal meetings are taking place in person.

“We’ve learned to do a lot of things over Zoom or Go2Meeting,” Mr. Whitfield said. “Even our staff meetings we do as a Zoom meeting.”

He said those services have made Milford’s government more efficient in some ways.

“I’m not driving to places or traveling to places or people are not traveling to come to see me,” Mr. Whitfield said.

Virtual governing not always ideal

The city manager said there also are some drawbacks to moving online.

“I do think you lose some things on a virtual platform that you don’t get when you meet all together as a group,” Mr. Whitfield said, “whether it’s facial expressions or being able to interact as a group rather than individually. I think you lose the unspoken context.”

Jamesha Eaddy, Milford’s human resources administrator, agreed that virtual communication has its shortcomings. She never stopped coming into the office.

“I came in the entire time, because each week, there’s still going to be employees that need different things from me,” she said. “I always try to make sure that I’m here and available.”

Ms. Eaddy said interacting with people face to face is an important part of her job.

“A lot of times having an in-person conversation can defuse a lot of things and help comfort people,” she said. “The phone, sometimes it can work, but, particularly during a pandemic, you want to be available in any way that you can for people.”

Ms. Hudson also found it hard to work from home.

“After a couple of weeks, a few of us found it easier to work from the office,” she said, “because none of us were prepared to be away from the office for long periods of time, and our work just didn’t stop, and demands had to be met.”

Although Ms. Hudson and others employed by the city “could handle emails, correspondence and virtual meetings in a mobile manner, there was a lot of information that was only available through computers or records at work.”

City Hall remains closed to public

City Hall may be open to Milford’s employees, but it’s still not open to Milford’s citizens.

“It was a big change for a lot of people who could no longer walk into City Hall, Customer Service or Parks & Recreation, to simply take care of something,” Ms. Hudson said.

The Customer Service department, based out of an old bank building on South Walnut Street, has traditionally functioned as a key interface between Milford’s citizens and its public works.

“Our department does utility and tax billing, and we field calls from the community … pertaining to their water, sewer, electric or trash services and anything regarding tax bills or utility bills,” said Suzannah Frederick, the department’s supervisor.

Before COVID-19, people were free to come into the building to pay their bills or ask questions in person, but not anymore. Ms. Frederick said she has been encouraging customers to use the department’s online services.

“Many of our customers preferred to walk in the building and pay their bills, in lieu of using the drive-thru or our online methods,” Ms. Hudson said. “Fortunately, because they had a drive-thru, that became the go-to for all of their transactions and not just utility payments.”

Ms. Frederick said her department is “fortunate to be in a bank building that has two drive-thru windows, so our Customer Service (department) has been able to maintain their status by having customers come right up through the drive-thru.”

Mr. Whitfield said the city is looking into the possibility of having some Customer Service personnel work from home.

“You can do billing from home,” he said. “You don’t really have to be in the office.”

Ms. Frederick said her employees “are able to remote into their desktop and respond to emails and complete utility billing and tax billing.”

But Mr. Whitfield said the city’s exploration of the increased efficiency provided by remote work hasn’t stopped there.

“In reality, we’re looking citywide on what are the things that we can have people work from home on,” he said.

“Obviously with public works, it’s difficult to work from home when you’re working on power lines, sewer lines, electric lines,” he said, but “we have some folks who could probably just as easily work from home, and we’re evaluating that.”

In-person council meetings may be on horizon

Mr. Whitfield hopes to have the City Council meetings in person at City Hall, even if the broader public still participates virtually, by the end of the year.

“We have our council room set up where we could social distance, and as long as everyone wore face masks, we could probably hold meetings in our council room,” Mr. Whitfield said.

“To meet the governor’s criteria, we have to do livestreaming of the meeting, as well as have a way for people who are livestreaming to participate in the meeting, and we’re just not there yet,” he said.

Ms. Hudson said many in Milford have adjusted well to the local government’s new status quo.

“I think more people are paying attention to social media, the city website, news alerts,” she said. “What I worry about are those people that never became tech-savvy. I have talked with several people, as recent as yesterday, that admit they have very little knowledge of computers.”

Milford’s new normal has been challenging for that population, Ms. Hudson said.

Regardless, Ms. Eaddy said the city is now better equipped to handle unexpected situations like the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think moving forward, we would be better prepared if something like this were to happen again,” she said. “I don’t really know what’s going to happen in the fall and winter, so I think because we had this experience in the last few months, we’ll definitely be prepared, and we’ll know how to approach it.”