The council closed its March 30 meeting to the physical public in an effort to encourage residents to stay home and slow the spread of COVID-19. Every subsequent meeting since has followed the same guidelines. The meetings were still open to attend online via WebEx, and anyone who wanted to participate was required to submit questions through the city’s website three hours before the meeting began.
But after two weeks of debating whether the public should be allowed back in, the council decided to reopen future meetings to the physical public in a 4-1 vote.
Councilmember Bob Whalen said attempting to accommodate the public by giving them the option to attend online could still leave out people who do not have access to the internet.
“At some point we get to the question of if someone doesn’t have access to technology in their home, then they don’t have the opportunity to participate, and if they are choosing to stay at home then they are not going to be heard,” Whalen said before the vote was cast.
Councilmember Vong Mouanoutoua said residents should be able to choose if they want to attend the city’s meetings.
“This is an essential meeting for the people. It’s the people’s government, they need access to us and we need to accommodate that,” he said. “I truly value the face-to-face when you see someone that is actually addressing us.”
Councilmember Lynne Ashbeck, who cast the only no vote, said the city would send the wrong message by allowing the public to physically attend meetings while not letting them reopen businesses.
“We are encouraging people to stay home, so to say that people can come here is in my mind the opposite of that,” Ashbeck said. “We are asking our citizens to stay home and leave their businesses closed, so why would we say you can come here but you can’t do your livelihood?”
Mayor Drew Bessinger said the city should provide an option for the public to attend.
“I think people should shelter at home as much as they can… but there is a higher calling. I think there are going to be times when someone is really upset or wants to make sure that we know exactly what they mean,” Bessinger said. “They can potentially do that through different means, but I think we need to have an option where someone can come in.”
The city also authorized future meetings to be live streamed on the internet. People who do not want to physically attend meetings will still be able to listen, watch and submit questions or comments online.
While future meetings will once again be open, the city will continue to implement social distancing measures to limit the spread of COVID-19. The council discussed allowing only 18 people in the meeting room at a time, meaning others will have to wait outside or in another room before they are called in to speak to the council.
The new guidelines would go into effect for the council’s May 4 meeting.