“I’m not sure I understand the question.” First Ward Councilman Sean Dunne doesn’t see the value in holding virtual council meetings. He’s certainly not alone in the city government.
Portsmouth City Council is back in session after a two-month break due to COVID-19 restrictions. When Ohio’s local governments were forced to comply with the stay-at-home rules, many switched to virtual meetings. Some, like the Scioto County Commissioners, met in person and broadcast the meeting online. Others, like New Boston Village Council or the Lawrence County Commissioners, conducted meetings via apps like Zoom.
The Best We Can Do
Portsmouth City Council was unable to hold meetings due to a rule in the city charter that required all meetings to be in person. Some have questioned why they didn’t have a quick, socially distant meeting to change that rule. Additionally, why isn’t changing that rule at the top of their to-do list now that they are back in session? Turns out, council people don’t think it’s that big of a deal.
Council Members met in the ballroom at Shawnee State University. This allowed them enough space to practice social distancing. Scioto County Daily News’s Mark Craycraft asked if there were any plans to change the rules to allow for virtual meetings.
Portsmouth Mayor, Kevin E. Johnson, said he didn’t quite understand the question and passed it across the room to City Manager Sam Sutherland.
Sutherland said, “I believe we’ve done the best we can do.”
Mayor Johnson expressed his doubts about the practicality of using virtual meeting software such as Zoom. “A Zoom meeting for Council would really be difficult. As far as the two spots on the agenda to allow the public to speak… How are you going to be inclusive of that in a Zoom Meeting?”
Not Practical For Portsmouth?
Zoom, Google Meet, Facebook Rooms, and other meeting software allow you to create a public room and invite up to 100 people to join the meeting. Scioto County Commissioners accept questions live on their Facebook page. New Boston Village Council accepted questions from the public in advance and addressed them in Zoom meetings that were shared on their Facebook page.
Johnson said the council coped as best they could. “Folks, this was all new to us. The COVID-19 kind of threw a curveball to all of us. To the whole world.”
He said that while virtual meetings might work for some situation, he believes the decision not to hold the meeting was the best choice for the Portsmouth government.
“I serve on various committees and boards. Some of us have done the Zoom. Some of us have done a certain Google meeting. Here at council, we chose to do it this way. I really would like to believe that we’re doing the best we can with what we have right now. We’ve afforded our citizens every opportunity to submit questions.”
“I Just Don’t Understand The Question”
Councilman Dunne, who is also a professor of sociology at SSU didn’t really see the point of the question.
“Again, maybe I’m missing the question; what it’s trying to ask. If you want to know what City Government has done here. One is that we’ve abided by the guidelines of the state. We’ve abided by the state as far as limiting the number of individuals in a meeting and so on and so forth.
I’d add to that, and I think we have our Second Ward representative to thank, we took it very seriously very early. A lot of other places responded quite late or barely at all. We cancelled meetings until we had an idea of how we could do this instead of rushing into things and being uncertain and possible being unsafe. People have the ability to ask question Again, this is less than ideal. Living in a world with this pandemic is also less than ideal. I haven’t had any complaints. I just don’t understand the question.”
What The State Says About Virtual Meetings
While there were limitations imposed on in-person meetings, the Ohio legislature made it very clear that virtual meetings were not only allowed, they were encouraged. Here’s a direct quote from the Ohio Attorney General’s website about the bill:
- The bill specifically permits a public body to conduct meetings via teleconference, video conference, or any similar electronic technology.
- A public body may choose to use audio-only teleconferencing.
- Access to any such meetings must be afforded through some mechanism that makes it generally available, including teleconferencing; live streaming via the internet; or broadcasting on local radio, cable television, or public-access stations.
- When using audio-only teleconferencing, the public body should ensure that speakers are identified and individual votes announced verbally so that listeners can determine what each member is saying and how he/she is voting.
Back to Normal
Mayor Johnson said he was eager to get things back to normal. Or at least what passes for normal these days.
“We are going to try to get back to our normal meeting place. That’s not to take anything away from Shawnee. The facilities here are beautiful. But we do want to get back to home. To our meetings at the city building. We want to get back to having our citizens at the meeting. Also, we want to be compliant with our governor. We want to put everybody’s health and welfare first and foremost.”