by CHRIS ROGERS
With their faces framed by webcam feeds and their living rooms in the background, Lewiston City Council members held their first virtual meeting last week over the videoconferencing system Zoom. This what local democracy looks like in the age of COVID-19.
Across the area, many local governments closed their doors to the public; directed citizens to seek services or pay bills online, by phone, or by mail; and laid plans to hold public meetings over teleconference or videoconference systems. Some governments are still working out the kinks in how these systems will function and how they will preserve transparency and public participation.
The city of Winona’s first virtual meeting, also with Zoom, was a little bumpy. “We are getting a lot of garbled information. It’s unintelligible,” Winona Planning Commission member Dan Hall said on Monday as commission members accidentally talked over each other and feedback sent warped digital echoes reverberating through participants' speakers. “If you aren’t going to speak, I’m going to mute everybody. If you are going to speak, unmute yourself,” Assistant City Planner Luke Sims said, trying to fix the issue. Zoom allows meeting attendees to participate online or by telephone. One commission member’s phone connection cut in and out during the meeting. “Laverne are you here?” Sims asked.
Despite those problems, the system functioned properly for the majority of the meeting, and subsequent trial run of the meeting software with the City Council went fairly smoothly.
Still, Planning Commission members raised concerns about whether the public had an appropriate opportunity to participate in two public hearings held during the virtual meeting. A call-in number for the virtual meeting was published in newspaper legal notices and posted on the door at city hall. That met certain legal requirements, but at the time of the meeting, the details for how citizens could participate in the virtual meeting were not posted on the city’s website, the city’s online calendar, or its digital listing of meeting agendas.
“With this new, necessary meeting format, are we convinced there has been ample opportunity for citizen input?” Hall asked. “For those other neighbors, are they even aware of this Zoom meeting? Are they even aware of their right for participation and comment?” he added. Neighbors had written emails expressing concern about one of the items on the Planning Commission’s agenda, but no members of the general public participated in the virtual meeting or spoke at the public hearings. It is unclear whether they were aware of the virtual meeting.
While they could have moved forward regardless, the Planning Commission members were genuinely concerned about public participation. It voted to postpone both of the main decisions on its agenda — a permit for a short-term rental and a subdivision that would be an initial step in Main Square Development’s plan to build a parking ramp at the site of the historic Winona Junior High School Auditorium — until new public hearings with better public notice could be held at the commission’s next meeting on April 13.
Sims said the commission’s concerns were well-taken and the city would more widely share how to participate in the next virtual meeting. “We want to try to do as much outreach as we can,” he stated.
Later that week, city staff had posted links and call-in information for upcoming virtual meetings to the city’s online meeting calendar. City manager Steve Sarvi said that as videoconference details are set for future meetings, they will be posted to the city’s website, calendar, and social media. For future public hearings, citizens will be able to either speak during virtual meetings or send in comments via email, he stated.
In addition to video and audio feeds, the virtual meeting system gives participants a chat option, including options to chat privately on a one-to-one basis. “What’s the legality of the chat feature?” City Council member Eileen Moeller asked. “I’m assuming we should not use it.” Sarvi responded, “You should absolutely not use it.”
Meanwhile, Winona County canceled all of its meetings for March and started developing plans to use a teleconference system for future meetings, according to county administrator Ken Fritz. While many of the permits and activities on which county committees make decisions are also being slowed down by the virus, Fritz noted, “Eventually, you’ve got to do certain business.”
Winona County, and the cities of Arcadia, Goodview, Lewiston, St. Charles, and Winona all closed their offices to the general public while continuing to operate. They directed citizens to call, email, or visit city websites for assistance. Pay utilities online or put a check in the drop box, St. Charles Administrator Nick Koverman told citizens. People who are having trouble paying for utilities should contact city hall, he said. “We are suspending our late fees on our utility bills for March and April through May and then … just so folks’ income isn’t stunted we will not be doing any disconnects, but they still have to fill out the appropriate payment arrangement,” he explained.
Under order of the Minnesota Supreme Court, the Winona County Courthouse will be closed to the general public. The courts are postponing all but the most urgent hearings and conducting some by videoconference. People with essential business should call ahead to court administration (507-457-6385), the Department of Corrections (507-457-6470), and Winona County Attorney’s Office (507-457-6310).
The Winona County Health and Human Services Director Karen Sanness said her department is continuing to process applications for welfare, investigate child protection complaints, and its other vital functions. The applications for benefits and assistance are online, or applicants may call the department at 507-457-6200 and request applications be mailed to them.
“I’m worried about families right now because they’re very low on money,” Sanness said. “A lot of people in poverty are service workers … So many people are losing their jobs.”
Like many businesses, local governments scrambled to set up remote working systems for their employees. Local information technology companies were slammed. Some city of Winona and Winona County departments were short-staffed because of employees already at home under quarantine or isolation.
Inside Winona’s closed-to-the-public city hall, building maintenance worker Craig Timm used an electrostatic sprayer — a handheld version of the Ghost Busters-esque guns now ubitiquous in photos of infection control in China and across the globe — to disinfect every surface. “Now it’s hard-core cleaning,” Timm said of his job these days.
“We were fortunate to be a little bit ahead of the curve. We got this gun three weeks ago from a company that had two left,” maintenance lead Josh Poepping said. The plant that makes this particular kind is in Wuhan, China, and is shut down right now, Timm reported.
The sprayer works by shooting out a mist of disinfectant solution that the gun positively charges. Most objects have a negative charge and so the disinfectant is attracted to surfaces like a magnet, Timm explained.
Sarvi said the city is trying in getting another sprayer for the city’s transit buses; however, Timm reported the equipment is now very hard to find.