City Council in the Time of Covid-19

You may not have been hearing much out of City Hall or the City Council in the last week or so, but that doesn’t mean things have been quiet, so here’s an update: In case you’ve missed it, the July 7 city council meeting is going to be held “in person” at the American Legion hall.

The City Manager has decreed Zoom attendance will NOT be an option.

Now, I will be the first to admit I was less than excited when we began doing council meetings on Zoom (I really am kind of a technophobe), but as my comfort level improved, I found the meetings to be much more appealing for several reasons, first and foremost, the increased public attendance; second: I’ve never been in any government meeting hall that was comfortable, had excellent audio and visual accommodations, and allowed me to get up and move around when my back started hurting or my leg was getting stiff; and third: even before Covid, I worried about catching “something” from one of the many folks packed into narrow, uncomfortable chairs like sardines. From comments, I gather that some of the other councilors feel the same way as do a lot of other folks.

But, sadly, it appears that our City Manager does not – and part of the reason is that some things said and done during the June meeting offended him. Specifically: I am reluctant to hold Council meetings via Zoom going forward considering the lack of decorum and inappropriate behavior demonstrated by virtual attendees at the meeting on June 23rd. There were repeated occasions where staff, guest presenters and citizen voices were interrupted, virtual attendees chose to use sign-in names that were derogatory to staff, and background noises were disruptive making the meeting difficult to understand at times.”

Lessons learned. There IS always an option of reminding folks that they need to mute their own voices, ensure there is no background noise, and generally remember that behavior at a virtual meeting should be the same as any other meeting. As to interrupting presenters, city councilors have done that in “real” meetings so I’m not sure I understand why it was a much greater transgression at a virtual meeting. Not to mention that the main incident of incivility I observed, and that I’ve heard commented on since the meeting, was when the City Manager snapped at Councilor Maher for asking a legitimate procedural question – albeit one that questioned his authority.

So, because our City Manager was offended (and seriously folks – if you were using offensive sign-in names, that really wasn’t good form – we can be unhappy, and critical, but we need to be civil), if you want to hear the meeting on July 7, you will have to attend in person … which in the normal course of events wouldn’t be a huge issue. However, we have at least one councilor, and some staff, in that “high risk” category that makes attending large indoor public gatherings a worrisome situation; and another councilor who, on the advice of their physician is not going to be attending. I suspect there are a number of citizens in our town who are dealing with the same concerns.

This is a real problem given the critical nature of the issues we’re addressing next Tuesday.

But the City Manager says not to worry: “If it is OK for the community to patronize local businesses such as restaurants, bars and the like (and without masks), then it is OK to attend a public meeting.” …additionally, he says: “… considering there have been 0 reported COVID-19 cases in Carlton during the entire time of the pandemic, the risk seems minimal.”

A call to the county health department verified that indeed, there are so far no Covid cases reported for Carlton, but since we also, to my knowledge have been doing no testing, I’m not sure how the City Manager can declare we have had no cases here. The idea that Carlton is somehow immune from exposure is ludicrous to say the least, especially with the visitor count increasing and our own residents having to travel out of town for work or shopping.

What he also seems to be missing is that while going to a bar or restaurant is a choice made at your discretion (Never mind that, if you’re like me, you’re still mostly doing take-out if you want something to eat other than your own cooking and you’re avoiding any kind of gathering like the plague – because it could be!), if you want to be present and active in your city’s government, attending a city council meeting really is kind of critical. Especially if you’re an elected councilor.

You don’t have a choice if you want to be certain your voice is heard—well, you CAN send in a written comment, but make sure it doesn’t offend the mayor or city manager because it may never be heard.

So, because our City Manager is offended, the citizens of this city will be penalized by limiting attendance at a meeting that, among other things will include: a long-requested work session to review proposed changes to the City Parks Plan, a Public Hearing on a much-discussed Zoning change request for property that is slated to become the second phase of the JR Meadows subdivision; and a request for the city council to approve the sale of property at 156 E. Monroe Street.

We also have several new issues that have not previously come before the council, for a grand total of 334 pages of material we need to read and digest prior to next Tuesday evening; it arrived on our doorsteps barely a week prior to the meeting … and most of that time will be a holiday weekend.

I’m certain we’ll be able to provide due deliberation and make well-informed, thoughtful decisions on all of these issues.

And remember folks: It is your money that is paying the annual $100,000 + to this city manager who is treating you like a schoolroom of errant second graders .

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