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Council vote could allow online board and commission meetings during COVID-19 quarantine

Thursday, March 26, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

The city’s boards and commissions, which have been sidelined since mid-March because of bans on large gatherings linked to the spread of COVID-19, could get the green light to hold virtual meetings.

Today City Council is expected to vote on temporarily waiving local ordinance 2-1-6(E) that requires all members of a board or commission to be present in order for a meeting to take place. The change would allow meetings “via telephonic or videoconference” until the suspension of the local disaster declaration made by Mayor Steve Adler earlier this month.

Council will hold its first meeting using online conferencing technology today, with city staff expected to adapt the digital tools to allow the city’s dozens of boards and commissions to resume their regular meeting schedule.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, who will attend Thursday’s meeting remotely, said the temporary change to online meetings is necessary for city business to move forward. He said Council and staff will need to figure out questions about equity and digital access for residents and some board members, and how to handle the possibility that hundreds of people watching online may overwhelm the public comment portions of meetings.

“The bigger questions for me when it comes to online meetings are around issues of equity. Most board and commission members are going to have access to the tools they need and there might be a handful who need a little help,” he said. “The public access piece is the bigger question and that’s tough because so much of the substantive public engagement happens outside of Council meetings, in meetings with stakeholders and organizations that are then taking information back to their constituencies. The hard work of policy development happens in that way and there is often an outsized importance placed on the types of feedback given moments before we cast our vote on an agenda item.”

The temporary cancellation of boards and commissions has come to a head for the city’s Music Commission, which was scheduled to have an emergency meeting earlier this month with the goal of passing a resolution related to aid for the music economy following the cancellation of South by Southwest.

Without holding a meeting, nine of the commission’s 11 members agreed on language in recent days that calls for Council to work toward the creation of the Austin Music Disaster Relief Fund. That language was delivered to Council members Wednesday morning, prompting a response to the commission from Stephanie Hall, the city’s coordinator of board and commissions.

It read, in part: “Please remember that at this time board and commission meetings are not permitted to be conducted remotely in any format. This includes video, telephone or email. We are aware of the waivers to TOMA on the state level, but those have not yet been formally addressed by our City Council and therefore do not extend to all of our board and commission meetings. Discussions with various departments has been occurring and we believe they will be discussed during the upcoming Council meeting. Please do not proceed with any future meetings until you hear from the City Clerk’s office. As soon as we have more information to provide about options for future meetings I will email everyone with details. Until then, it is important to remember that anything conducted outside of an approved meeting is null and void.”

Flannigan, who helped spearhead the resolution on today’s agenda related to economic aid related to COVID-19, said the wide-reaching item is the first step needed to allow city staff to recommend appropriate programs and funding sources to help a variety of sectors impacted by the ongoing quarantine.

“This is a conversation that is happening amongst many people in the music community, and our resolution is not designed to detail every program. It is more intended to take the guardrails off of staff, to let our experts and professionals really brainstorm and act swiftly to bring forward solutions to the public,” he said. “A program like a Music Disaster Relief Fund like they have detailed might be exactly what we do, or it might take some other form and be part of some larger initiative. We’re trying to not be so prescriptive so we don’t end up not being able to do stuff in a better way by leveraging federal dollars.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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