Elkins Resuming In-person Meetings
Elkins, W. Va., September 10, 2020: Elkins Common Council and its committees will return to in-person meetings effective immediately, Elkins City Clerk Jessica Sutton announced today. A memo from Mayor Van Broughton explained that the first in-person committee meetings will be held next week, while the regular council meeting of September 17 will be postponed to September 24 to allow time for the installation of protective plexiglass barriers in council chambers.
“Council members have made clear that they feel they cannot deliberate effectively unless they are in the same room together,” says Sutton. “We haven’t found a workable way to enable that while also broadcasting the meetings audibly for the public, so there is no way forward but to return to fully in-person meetings as soon as possible.”
City of Elkins suspended in-person meetings upon Mayor Broughton’s declaration of a citywide state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 virus pandemic on March 17. The primary obstacle to in-person council meetings was the size of the group that is required to be in attendance.
“Elkins has a ten-person city council, which is one of the largest in the state,” says Sutton. “There are also six city staff members who are required to attend council meetings. That’s a big crowd to try to space out six feet apart while still enabling the meeting to be audible online, and of course we had to accomplish both of these goals given the governor’s orders and recommendations to stay out of public spaces as much as possible.”
Instead, and in accordance with advice issued by the West Virginia Ethics Commission, which administers the state’s open meetings laws, virtual meetings were held on the Zoom platform, with councilors, staff, and members of the public all joining remotely. However, this approach encountered some technical glitches and one “Zoom bombing” attack, and councilors increasingly expressed interest in being able to deliberate in person.
In response, the city clerk’s office ordered installation of a software solution that would bring the signal from the council-chamber sound board into a computer for broadcast over Zoom.
“The purpose of this solution was to enable councilors to deliberate in council chambers while letting the public listen to clear audio of the meeting online,” says Sutton.
This solution still didn’t solve the social distancing problem raised by a full meeting of council and its administrative officers, however, so at first the plan was to use this approach only for meetings of council’s three-member committees. However, the first two committee meetings that used this solution were plagued by audio issues.
“Councilors are intent on meeting in person, and we just don’t have a good way to enable them to do so while making clear audio of the meeting available online,” says Sutton. “So, starting next week, we’ll go to full in-person meetings once again, with both meeting participants and audience members able to gather in council chambers.”
Staff will continue to explore how to make the meeting audio available online, but the city’s experience so far suggests that this may not be feasible without significant additional cost.
The mayor’s memo outlines safety precautions that will be taken for these in-person meetings. These include maximum occupancy limitations for council chambers to ensure all audience members may be seated six feet apart, restrictions against entry by people suffering from the symptoms of or having tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, and a requirement that face coverings be worn by all meeting participants and audience members except when addressing the meeting.
“It’s frustrating to have to leave the virtual option behind for the time being, because I think that offers a really good opportunity for attendance by people who otherwise might not be able to come to council meetings,” says Sutton. “The good news is that this change will eliminate a major distraction and allow council to focus even more strongly on doing the people’s business.”