While many will be relieved to resume meeting in person, some lessons from the pandemic will carry on.
COVID-19 cases are trending downward in Oregon, but some impacts of the pandemic will live on when it comes to city council meetings, and it might lead to better civic participation.
The city council will resume in-person meetings on June 1, but the meetings will continue to be simulcasted online in Spanish.
“We had 50 people watching our budget process in Spanish. That’s remarkable and its a segment of a community that we’ve not done a good job of connecting with in the past,” said Keizer City Manager Chris Eppley.
An astonishing 900 people viewed some portion of the English-language budget meeting broadcasts.
Eppley said measures to ensure budget and city council meetings continued during the COVID-19 crisis forced city leaders to think through problems that had been on the back burner for a while. That included finding ways for the city to meet via teleconference.
Private entities and some larger statewide agencies made the switch to including teleconferencing years ago, but the impetus for doing so on the local level was rarely as intense as it became during the pandemic.
There were also regulatory hurdles to overcome. Gov. Kate Brown had to relax rules for conducting budget discussions for city governments so they could continue without running afoul of open meeting laws.
The transition to teleconferencing was not without snafus. Councilor Roland Herrera frequently had trouble communicating via teleconference and other councilors experienced some sporadic interference.
Those issues could have been the result of more people getting online at a specific time or outdated infrastructure unable to cope with the additional loads of people spending more time at home. Tests made during non-peak times did not suffer from the same bugs.
“We made huge strides to the point of being able to be comfortable with the platform and understand its limitations,” Eppley said.
Public testimony via teleconferencing was also allowed during meetings of the city council, budget committee and the charter review task force.
Eppley wants the city to continue to simulcast all city council meetings and the budget meetings in Spanish from this point forward. The city is contracting with a live translation service to make it happen.
For the time being, funding to pay for the translation will mostly likely come from Public, Educational and Government (PEG) funds the city receives from Comcast, but that might change in the near future. Comcast is disputing usage of the funds to pay staff costs. While Keizer has strived to stay within the lines of what the funds are dedicated to, others have not and Comcast is challenging the foundations of PEG funding in its entirety.
“If they’re able to completely sever the funds, I don’t know what we will do, but we will come up with a solution that works,” Eppley said.
Eppley was less sure about continuing to permit public testimony via teleconferencing in the future.
“If we can do so efficiently, we probably will. If it’s going to cost a ridiculous amount of money, we’ll have to see what’s feasible,” he said.