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City works out logistics to allow boards and commissions to meet virtually

Tuesday, March 31, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

After nearly a month of meetings being on hold, City Council voted last Thursday to temporarily waive a local ordinance requiring a quorum of board or commission members to be physically present in order for a meeting to take place.

The dozens of city boards and commissions may now resume their regular schedules with a quorum composed of virtually present members.

The temporary ordinance went into effect immediately after Council unanimously passed the ordinance on its consent agenda. However, actually executing the required logistics to ensure that the volunteer members of the boards and commissions along with city staffers are equipped to hold meetings will take a little longer.

While staff members are still finalizing the plans necessary to connect all parties and run meetings, City Clerk Jannette Goodall told the Austin Monitor there will be a final consensus on details this week.

Planning Commission and Zoning and Platting Commission liaison Andrew Rivera told the Monitor that although the particulars will be ironed out this week, his commission meetings will not begin next week. The April 7 Zoning and Platting Commission meeting is canceled while the April 14 Planning Commission meeting will take place virtually.

David King, who sits on the Zoning and Platting Commission, told the Monitor he is not opposed to all of the commission’s April meetings being canceled and that no case is so urgent it is worth risking one’s health. Additionally, he said the city’s virtual meeting procedures are still “immature” and he’s “very much concerned about the neighborhoods and interested parties being able to participate.”

He noted that online meetings will be advantageous for applicants and commission members, but citizen participation will not be equitable unless the meetings are hosted in person. “What I think we give up is some transparency and some participation,” he said in reaction to the announcement that meetings will move online for the foreseeable future.

Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison sent a statement to the Monitor outlining the necessity of restarting the boards and commissions process. “Pandemic or not, city business must go on, and our boards and commissions represent an essential link in our democratic chain. The volunteers who devote their time to these bodies provide invaluable insight and oversight, and City Council would be much weaker without their input,” she said.

Council similarly took its inaugural step into virtual meetings last week. Although there were some digital hiccups and a few fuzzy phone calls, 28 speakers signed up and spoke directly to Council over the phone.

Melissa Hawthorne, who sits on the Board of Adjustment, told the Monitor she is supportive of the city’s push for virtual meetings for boards and commissions. Hawthorne, who works with the Development Services Department for her day job, thinks the city has been dealing well with the transition from in-person to online meetings. “This is all a brave new world and they’re doing it,” she said.

Some technology-driven practices are already commonplace at meetings of boards and commissions, including the broadcasting of live meetings on the ATXN network. Goodall told the Monitor that forums currently scheduled to be televised will continue to be on the air when meetings resume. She said there is no decision on how meetings not already on the city’s television network will be aired for public viewing.

The logistical choices that city staffers make this week for virtual meetings will continue until the temporary ordinance is terminated by Council.

Although King was hesitant to support Council’s decision to conduct board and commission meetings virtually, he did say that this ordinance is a solution to unprecedented circumstances. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime situation, so I think it deserves some different rules,” he said.

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