The city of Grandview Heights has published new rules for public participation during all city meetings (see quote from the email at bottom). All residents are now directed to watch live streams of the meetings on YouTube, and stay out of city hall. The result of this new policy will be to end the “comments from visitors” section of all meetings, along with important live testimony during BZA and other hearings. The city claims it is following new emergency rules from the State that allow meetings to be conducted online without visitors. I think the city is failing to follow the new directives properly, and has not given enough thought to simple measures that would both allow live public comment, and protect the council from exposure to Coronavirus.
SB 197 passed to allow emergency rule change
The Ohio Senate passed new rules that allow public bodies in Ohio to conduct official meetings online, or with no visitors but live steamed to online services. The full bill has extensive rules for how this online meetings should be held, this short section is the most important for understanding the new policy (see below for comment on the quality of the video and audio of council meetings).
From SB 197
(C) When members of a public body conduct a hearing by means of teleconference, video conference, or any other similar electronic technology, the public body must establish a means, through the use of electronic equipment that is widely available to the general public, to converse with witnesses, and to receive documentary testimony and physical evidence.
Grandview city council has said in the past that they want emails sent to council members before meetings to substitute for live attendance and conversation with the public. The new rules clearly say “to converse with witnesses”, which means live back and forth talking at minimum. The city should have policy for sharing documents from residents during meetings, and physical evidence – and I have read no provisions for doing this during council meetings.
In my emails with the council, I have been told by Vice Pres. Smith that he interprets the above as only applying to hearings like the BZA. But – the city has not made rules for how this conversation with witnesses will be done. After they figure out how to allow testimony during hearings, what prevents them from using the same method for allowing conversations at all meetings?
If the council tries to use a “this is temporary!” dodge to the issue, please read SB 197. It allows these new rules to extend until December 2020. New policy that excludes the public from meetings is not “temporary” when it lasts all year long.
How the council is currently holding meetings.
The city is currently livestreaming meetings on YouTube. The audio quality is abysmal, the fixed wide angle camera doesn’t allow us to perceive who is speaking most of the time, unless the speaker is waving their hands. SB 197 requires high quality audio and video.
From SB 197
The public body shall ensure that the public can observe and hear the discussions and deliberations of all the members of the public body, whether the member is participating in person or electronically.
The quality of the video and audio so far fail to comply with SB 197. The city should be hiring a camera operator to follow the speakers during meetings, and ensure clean and clear audio is recorded. This is not some magic that requires special skills – the school board has done it since Aug, 2019, and is supposed to have a camera operator recording meetings after April this year. You could hire a teenager with the skills needed for cheap.
When we watch the council we can see they have spaced out the seating, and removed most of the visitor chairs. Good – but they are still passing paperwork between each other with no gloves, they pass within inches of each other while moving around the room. If you made a drinking game out of counting the number of times they touched their faces, you would not survive (but the alcohol you spill might protect you from viruses).
Just let the visitor in the room to speak, then leave
My first suggestion for allowing conversations with the public during meetings is the simplest. Ask those who wish to speak before the council to wait outside the building. Provide them with a means of requesting to speak (someone goes outside and makes a list). When the council gets to the “hearing from visitors” section of the meeting, allow each individual person to enter the room and speak. If the council is really worried about infections, it can provide gloves and a mask for each visitor. When the conversation is over, the speaker leaves.
Every council person already has to go out in public, to shop for food, to see family members. I don’t think allowing a few people to briefly enter the council chambers is going to perceptibly increase the danger to the council.
The window option
I think the above solution is the best, but if the paranoia of the council will not allow people in the room, visitors could stand outside the chambers and speak to council. Give them a phone number to call, place the answering phone in the center of the room set to speakerphone, with the volume all the way up. Each speaker stands outside the left window, and council members face the speaker. After the speaker finishes they can walk away and watch the streaming YouTube video of the meeting on their phone. This would have zero increase to the dangers of infection for both speakers and council.
Video conferencing options
There is no reason the council has to meet in person, as I read the new rules they can meet via video conferencing like Zoom. Everyone just stays home, visitors can watch the Zoom conference, the owner of the Zoom conference has controls that allow individual participants to have permission to speak. Allow residents to join in the conference and take the floor for five minutes.
This could also be done via Google Hangouts for free, as long as the participants are limited to 25. This would be well within the usual number of participants at council meetings.
The city just hired a IT expert who is supposed to be knowledgeable about these things, here is where he can earn his salary. Why do I have to do this work?
The Mayor and council are disappointing
We have been watching this pandemic approaching for two months, and the rules that the Mayor and council have enacted do not show that they have any respect for the preservation of live conversations with the residents of Grandview Heights.
I fully expect the Grandview school board to use this emergency to shut the meeting doors firmly closed, and place guards outside with orders to use fire hoses on anyone who attempts to enter. As of now, the board has been silent on rules – because informing the public is lowest on their list.
I don’t think this failure would have happened under Ray Degraw. This is another disappointment from Mayor Kearns.
(Edit) The council sent out new rules banning all public attendance at meetings. The council will now read the title of emails sent to the “all” address, during meetings, but not the body of the email. They say the text will be added to the official record – which will never be read by the public here in Grandview. This is not the best way to continue conversation with the citizens, and as I read the new laws, fails to be in compliance. An email sent to City attorney Khouzam asking for her legal opinion has not been answered.
(Later) I have to give credit where it is due – the Grandview Hts. School board has better public comment policy than the city council. On April 8, 2020, at 7 p.m, the board will have a Zoom conference (link to be posted on the school website), and they say they will
still allow public comment via participating in the zoom room.
(later) The above was info that was briefly posted by the school, they now say they will hold a closed video conference that can only be viewed on YT. Like the city, public comments must be sent via email. The board claims “comments will be read into the public record and attached to the meeting minutes.” I doubt they will be reading anything aloud they don’t agree with.
City council, you can’t keep up with the school board in allowing live public comment? Shameful. (edit) Shame on both the city and school board for taking away live public comments.
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