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Some board and commission meetings may stay virtual

Monday, July 26, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

Will the future of city board and commission meetings be in-person or virtual? Based on discussion at Wednesday’s Audit and Finance Committee, perhaps both.

The committee decided to further study the feasibility of allowing hybrid or entirely virtual meetings after hearing testimony from City Clerk Jannette Goodall and Community Technology and Telecommunications Commission Chair Nehemiah Pitts. City Council has met virtually since the beginning of the pandemic, as have all city boards and commissions.

Council members returned last week from their summer break with a hybrid in-person and virtual setup – their first appearance in City Hall since early 2020. Future Council meetings are planned to take place in person as before.

The impetus for the discussion came from the state, which has moved to bring back in-person meetings. Gov. Greg Abbott, responding to a request from Attorney General Ken Paxton, declared that exceptions to the Texas Open Meetings Act during the pandemic to allow all-virtual meetings and audio testimony will end in September, meaning the presiding officer of a board or commission must again be physically present. Public testimony must also be in person or submitted via live video from a designated city-owned location, most commonly a library.

The city may be able to request a waiver from the state for some of these requirements, but Goodall said she needed to consult with the city’s Law Department to verify the waiver policy.

There are a few reasons that the city is exploring hybrid meetings – or if possible, completely virtual meetings for some groups – instead of mandating everyone come back in person. First, City Hall and other city buildings have limited space to accommodate in-person boards and commissions. Keeping some meetings mostly or entirely virtual would alleviate this longtime space crunch. Virtual meetings are also more environmentally friendly since people won’t have to drive to City Hall or elsewhere.

Virtual meetings aren’t perfect, of course, as committee members acknowledged. “There is much to be gained by face-to-face communications,” Council Member Leslie Pool noted.

The ideal near-future would be virtual, committee members said, with only the most prominent boards and commissions, such as Parks, Planning, and Zoning and Platting returning mostly or completely in person. But because of the expensive technology and personnel time required for virtual meetings, most groups may come back in person.

If Council decides to keep a virtual element to some meetings, the city will have to keep spending money – over $1 million based on estimates from the city clerk’s office – on personnel time and technology upgrades. Since money is tight, as Council Member Alison Alter explained, that might not happen: “I will be totally honest – we do not have a million-plus in this budget to invest in this.”

Alter suggested allowing more time for discussion due to the uncertainty about state-level regulations and whether the city can find money to continue virtual meetings. The city clerk is set to come back to the committee next month for another update before Council makes a decision on the future of meetings.

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