Baxter City Council will continue to meet virtually into early October and then revisit whether to go back to in-person sessions at city hall.
Bradley Chapulis, Baxter city administrator, noted recent reports of other governmental bodies going back to live meetings during the council’s Tuesday night meeting, Sept. 15.
“We do have a limitation of 24 persons based on social distancing,” Chapulis said of the limits for people in the Baxter City Hall council chambers. “Obviously we don’t have full capacity at every council meeting, we feel comfortable in opening up. We would have to make some adjustments to our venue should we have an item that we know will solicit a larger audience, but I think we can accommodate that on those few occasions.”
Baxter has been meeting virtually via Zoom with a livestreamed meeting available on YouTube at https://bit.ly/3iE09WW.
In listing pros and cons of going back to meeting in city hall, Chapulis said he believed they could accommodate people attending but there was a drawback related to technology.
Tape already marks socially distanced chair placements in the public seating area in the council chambers. Staff marked out those spots in March before local governments across the board moved to virtual sessions. Chapulis said he believed they could accommodate the larger audience on those few occasions when the council would be expecting a large number of people. Most council meetings, outside of road projects, development and assessments, are typically lightly attended.
But going back to an open session comes with a limitation, particularly for those who may want to attend but are concerned about the health implications of being in a council chamber with others for potentially a longer period of time, depending on the session.
“Though technology is great. We don’t have an audio/video system set up just yet to be able to broadcast via YouTube,” Chapulis said. “So if we do go live we would lose that ability until we get that hardware and software installed.”
The council meetings, including workshops, are livestreamed on the city’s YouTube channel and recorded, giving people an opportunity to see past meetings as well. And in the recorded options, a transcript scroll on the right allows people to scroll down to the issue they are interested in and play that particular discussion. Subtitles and Closed Captions are also available.
Chapulis asked what the council members thought about either moving to an in-person meeting, or continuing to meet via Zoom.
“I support in-person and I believe we have CARES dollars that are kind of identified for the technology you described,” council member Todd Holman said of the money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act.
“I’ve always been a proponent of meeting in person as soon as it’s safe and I would like to see that happen,” council member Connie Lyscio said.
Council member Zach Tabatt agreed with the preference. “I, out of general preference, prefer an in-person meeting over a Zoom meeting every single time, but I guess I don’t see what’s changed since July other than there being an overall increased number of COVID cases since then,” Tabatt said. “So if we were put to a vote I would vote against going to in-person.”
Council member Mark Cross agreed with Tabatt.
“If nothing has changed here why would we change,” Cross said.
Mayor Darrel Olson said he could also go either way but said he wasn’t in a hurry to make the change and it wasn’t as if there were crowds ringing bells to get back to the public in-person meetings.
“And I know there was some concern to wait and see what happened after Labor Day,” Olson said of the potential for an increase in cases after the long holiday weekend brought people together. “Maybe we should just wait a few more weeks and see if there are any spikes … and regroup and take another look at it.”
Lyscio asked if the council could continue to Zoom through the next council meeting and revisit the issue.
The state’s peacetime emergency remains in effect through Oct. 11, when it may end or continue for another 30 days. Should the state Legislature vote to rescind or revoke the emergency declaration, Chapulis said the city would also be obligated to remove its emergency declaration. Until that time, Chapulis noted, it is the council’s decision regarding the belief that it is in the best interest of the council and the public to continue to meet virtually at this time.
“We can continue to monitor it,” Chapulis said.
Until then the council’s advisory boards and council meetings will be in Zoom settings.