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Council enters new territory with online participants

Monday, March 23, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Under normal circumstances, Council chambers would be packed with city staff, observers and people wishing to comment on various agenda items. Today, under national, state and local emergency declarations, COVID-19 has made these times anything but normal.

According to a memo released Friday, Mayor Steve Adler and five of his Council colleagues will appear in person at Thursday’s City Council meeting, while the other five “will be participating from remote locations to ensure social distancing standards are met.” Those planning to attend in person include Council members Greg Casar, Ann Kitchen, Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo and Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza.

City Manager Spencer Cronk and City Attorney Anne Morgan will apparently attend in person. Jerry Rusthoven of the Planning and Zoning Department, who handles zoning cases at Council, told the Austin Monitor Sunday that he plans to attend the meeting in person “unless I am told to do otherwise.”

Council members Natasha Harper-Madison, Alison Alter, Jimmy Flannigan, Paige Ellis and Pio Renteria will participate via an internet connection.

Flannigan told the Monitor, “I’m set up well to do this from home. I’ve been doing my Facebook Live show since last October so I’ve got a good webcam,” as well as extra lighting and “even a green screen.” The District 6 representative says he is all set up to work remotely, and his Council office is mostly digital.

He added, “I’m sure the Council meeting is going to be frustrating … and we’re all going to have to be calm and patient. The mayor’s suggestion that we keep this as much as we can to consent items is a good one, so future meetings can be more deliberative. It’s also a good test of how much the Council can get done on the message board.”

Flannigan has proposed a resolution aimed at helping local small businesses. A majority of his colleagues have signed on as co-sponsors.

Council Member Renteria, who points out that he is the oldest member of the Council at 69, said Friday that a member of his staff had come to his house and set up his computer so he can participate in the meeting online.

The public and members of the media will not be allowed to appear in person, although the city has set up a phone line for Austinites who wish to comment about items on the agenda. All discussion items and items requiring a public hearing will be postponed to a future date, though it’s not possible at this point to say what that date might be.

Members of the public who wish to address Council must register by noon on Wednesday. “All public comment will occur at the beginning of the meeting starting at 2 p.m.,” the memo says.

To speak remotely at the March 26 Council meeting, residents must submit an online registration form.

On Saturday, the Monitor asked neighborhood leader David King, who comments regularly on issues before Council, if he intends to participate this week. He said it is unlikely, but added that it would be important in the future to make sure people can participate from all parts of the city.

Photo by M.Fitzsimmons / CC BY-SA

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