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Council expands virtual participation in city meetings

Tuesday, January 18, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

Due to the omicron variant disrupting in-person city meetings this month, City Council will allow boards and commissions to gather mostly virtually sooner than planned. 

Council is set to approve an ordinance today requiring that only one board or commission member be physically present, giving other members the option to participate via videoconference or in person.

The change was approved in November and was scheduled to take effect Feb. 28, but it will now take effect immediately in order to keep meeting participants safe during a time of heightened Covid risk.

While video participation has been available since the beginning of the pandemic, a majority of members have had to attend in person since Sept. 1, when Gov. Greg Abbott ended pandemic exceptions to the Texas Open Meetings Act. The city later reinterpreted Abbott’s direction and moved to allow just the presiding officer to be present. To assist with hybrid meetings, Council approved the hiring of five new employees in December, at a cost of $453,058 for Fiscal Year 2023. 

The move toward virtual participation will come as welcome news to the city’s nearly 100 boards and commissions, many of which have struggled to make in-person quorum this month amid an unprecedented Covid outbreak. Eighteen board and commission meetings have been canceled so far in January according to a city spokesperson, though it is unclear whether omicron was at fault in all of the cancellations.

Some boards and commissions have also scrapped much of their agendas this month to avoid long meetings with lots of people attending in person. The Planning Commission and Zoning and Platting Commission have pushed back lengthy and controversial zoning cases to February, meaning their January meetings will only cover cases that can be approved unanimously and without discussion. 

“We are going to be able to do this in a safer manner starting in February,” Planning Commission Chair Todd Shaw said. At least three members of the Planning Commission attended virtually on Jan. 11 because of Covid infection or exposure, though the commission was still able to make in-person quorum.

While all Planning Commission members were on board with the agenda changes this month, some were apprehensive about next month’s business. “We’re gonna have a very brutal meeting in February,” Commissioner João Paulo Connolly said.

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