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Local governments contemplate ‘virtual meetings’ to slow coronavirus spread

Avondale Estates Business COVID-19 Crime and public safety Decatur Kirkwood Metro ATL Tucker

Local governments contemplate ‘virtual meetings’ to slow coronavirus spread

More than 200 residents attended a 2017 Tucker City Council meeting. File photo by Benjamin Kweskin
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DeKalb County, GA – The city of Atlanta will conduct a “virtual mock council meeting” on March 12 to test whether it will be an effective replacement for the real thing if coronavirus clogs up the gears of government.

It’s a move several local governments are contemplating now that coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has been upgraded to pandemic status by the World Health Organization. But not every government has the capacity to stream public meetings online, like Atlanta and Decatur. And there are also numerous other smaller subunits of government – like the Neighborhood Planning Units in Atlanta – that hold open meetings and aren’t streamed online. Most public meetings are subject to notification requirements of the state’s Open Meetings Act, and while there are provisions in the law to conduct emergency meetings by phone, it’s not clear if the act’s authors ever contemplated a scenario where local government would be hobbled for a prolonged period.

If meetings like NPU and Planning Commission meetings come to a halt over public access issues and public health concerns, it could have an effect on the local economy as zoning applications sit idle and plans go unapproved.

Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett said it’s unclear what the effect of having fewer public meetings would have on the economy.

“If everything starts getting canceled, it’s something I don’t think we have the ability to predict even short or long term what the consequences may be,” Garrett said. “I’m optimistic we may be able to continue to run at a different level.”

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William Perry, founder of advocacy group Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, groaned when a reporter asked him his feelings about governments switching to virtual meetings during the coronavirus epidemic. His initial response? “Oh, God.”

“I think it’s a ridiculous overreaction, but if the entities feel there is a true health concern, I think it can be OK that government doesn’t shut down, as long as they make sure people can have access to the deliberations,” Perry said. “You’ve got to have completely open and public access with no tripwires. If they can’t guarantee all citizens have access to the meeting, they shouldn’t do it.”

The Attorney General’s Office didn’t immediately have a comment about whether virtual meetings could become the norm and still satisfy the notice requirements of the Open Meetings Act. The OMA does allow for meetings via phone under emergency conditions.

The law says:

“Under circumstances necessitated by emergency conditions involving public safety or the preservation of property or public services, agencies or committees thereof not otherwise permitted by subsection (f) of this Code section to conduct meetings by teleconference may meet by means of teleconference so long as the notice required by this chapter is provided and means are afforded for the public to have simultaneous access to the teleconference meeting. On any other occasion of the meeting of an agency or committee thereof, and so long as a quorum is present in person, a member may participate by teleconference if necessary due to reasons of health or absence from the jurisdiction so long as the other requirements of this chapter are met. Absent emergency conditions or the written opinion of a physician or other health professional that reasons of health prevent a member’s physical presence, no member shall participate by teleconference pursuant to this subsection more than twice in one calendar year.”

As this section of the OMA notes, emergency public meetings also require public access and notice requirements.

According to the Digital Media Law Project, the Open Meetings Act has strict public notice requirements for public meetings.

“Georgia law requires governing bodies of agencies to establish a set schedule of regular meetings and to post notice of this schedule at a conspicuous location at its regular meeting place,” the Media Law Project says. “The posted notice for regularly scheduled meetings must include dates, times, and locations for the meetings.”

Atlanta’s mock virtual city council meeting will be a test case that other local governments may try to emulate.

“The public may access the meeting by a Conference Bridge: Toll Free Access: (877) 579-6743 Conference ID: 8315991256,” the meeting announcement from the city says. “Citizens may provide public remarks pursuant to city code section 2-104 and 2-105 by using the following methods Public Comment voice mail number 404-330-6001, Public Comment E-mail: epc@atlantaga.gov, Social Media: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram via AtlCouncil, 30 minutes prior to the scheduled meeting. No official legislative actions of the City Council will be taken nor discussed.”

Perry notes that public comment isn’t required under the Open Meetings Act, meaning virtual meetings could strip residents of their ability to address local elected officials directly.

“Unfortunately, public comment is not anything that’s required so the fact that portion of it would have to be taken away doesn’t sit well with me,” he said.

Other local governments Decaturish spoke to haven’t announced plans to change how meetings are conducted. Notably, DeKalb County is holding a “virtual town hall” COVID-19 meeting on March 11. After residents raised concerns about holding a public meeting during a virus outbreak, the county decided to hold a virtual meeting “out of an abundance of caution.” The local messaging has been mixed, however.

Coronavirus concerns didn’t derail a March 10 public meeting about the county’s plans to upgrade the aging and deteriorating sewage and drainage system on Green Street in Decatur.

DeKalb County didn’t respond to a question about whether the county is developing plans for virtual public meetings, like the County Commission meetings. Most of those meetings are already streamed online.

In Tucker, where meetings aren’t streamed, it’s business as usual for now.

“At this time there are no changes to Tucker’s meeting structure or meeting schedule,” Tucker spokesperson Matt Homes said. “We will continue to work with our partners at [The DeKalb County Emergency Management Agency] and the DeKalb Board of Health for guidance on these and other issues.”

Avondale Estates, which only recently began streaming City Commission meetings on Facebook, is exploring its options.

“In preparations for mitigating the future spread of the coronavirus we have begun those discussions at a staff level, but have yet to fully brainstorm solutions with legal counsel or the [City Commission,” City Manager Patrick Bryant said.

DeKalb County Board of Education Chairperson Marshall Orson said the board hasn’t considered holding virtual meetings yet.

“However, the next regular board meeting is not scheduled until April 15, 2020,” he said. “Prior to that time, the board will consider what options legally are permitted for holding board meetings in response to circumstances that may develop.”

Decatur streams most of its meetings and Mayor Garrett said the city is following the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, which coincidentally is located in DeKalb County.

“I think because we are able to stream our meetings, I think we’re more fortunate than some other communities in terms of being able to be open and transparent even having to meet virtually,” she said.

She notes that while DeKalb County is holding a “virtual town hall” the city is moving forward with an event on March 11 to thank people who serve on various city boards.

“We’re trying to very much go by the CDC guidelines,” Garrett said. “At this point, there has not been anything that has indicated we need to change course in the way we’re doing things. If we get that message, it’ll be the message we follow. I just flew back from Washington, DC last night and was at a National League of Cities meeting. There were thousands of people there. We washed our hands. It was a handshake-free meeting.”

Garrett thinks that once the coronavirus outbreak has tapered off, legislators should consider how to tweak the Open Meetings Act to account for situations like this.

“We’re all going to have to figure out how we continue to conduct our business,” Garrett said.

In other coronavirus news:

– Gov. Brian Kemp is requesting $100 million in state funds to fight the spread of coronavirus. The money would come from the state’s Revenue Shortfall Reserve fund.

“Ensuring that Georgia has the resources at hand to enable us to respond quickly and thoroughly to prevent its [COVID-19] spread within our borders is paramount to keeping our citizens safe, maintaining the health of our health network, and mitigating impact to our economy,” Kemp said. “I do not make the recommendation to draw from this account lightly. However, the spread of the coronavirus represents an immediate and unforeseen threat to the state.”

– Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued an order to stop the disconnection of water services during the coronavirus outbreak.

“Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued an Administrative Order directing the Commissioner of Watershed Management to refrain from taking any action which would result in the termination of water services for any Watershed Management customer due to non-payment for the next sixty (60) days,” a press release from the city says.

Bottoms said running water will be essential for curbing the spread of the virus.

“The health and wellbeing of Atlanta residents is at the forefront of everything we do as a city,” Bottoms said. “Access to water is paramount in the prevention of COVID-19 or any infectious health threat and no one should be deprived of this fundamental resource because of an inability to pay.”

According to CNN, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned that Americans are going to have to change how they live their lives to stop the spread of coronavirus.

“We would like the country to realize that as a nation, we can’t be doing the kinds of things we were doing a few months ago. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a state that has no cases or one case,” Fauci said, according to CNN. He also referred people to the CDC’s website for the latest news about coronavirus.

According to the CDC, there have been 938 cases reported in the United States and 29 deaths. In Georgia, there are between 21 and 50 cases, according to the CDC.

– Seattle Public Schools will close for two weeks over coronavirus concerns. There have been no school closures in DeKalb County. There have been two presumptive cases reported in DeKalb. WSB-TV reported that a second Fulton County Schools employee has tested positive for coronavirus. Most of the school district will reopen on March 12. Here is the full announcement from Fulton County Schools:

Fulton County public health officials have notified Fulton County Schools that an employee at Woodland Middle School in East Point has been confirmed to have COVID-19.

As has been previously announced this week, Woodland Middle School is currently closed and being cleaned due to potential exposure from a different employee who served both Woodland Middle School and Bear Creek Middle School.

Woodland Middle School was scheduled to re-open on March 17 based on the exposure in the first case; however, the employee was last in school on March 9  and the date to re-open is being moved to Monday, March 23, which is the same as Bear Creek Middle School. In both cases, the closure is to reduce risk of additional exposure during the 14-day waiting period recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.

Individual students and employees who are identified as having had direct and prolonged contact with the employee are being contacted by the Fulton County Public Health Department and directed to self-quarantine.

Families that have not been contacted by the county public health department are considered to have low risk of exposure and should self-monitor.  If a student or staff member feels ill or is exhibiting any flu-like symptoms, they should contact a medical professional. Fulton County Schools is finalizing a plan on how to provide continued meal service to students at Bear Creek Middle School and Woodland Middle School. Additional information will be provided to those families by the school principals by Friday.

The current case at Woodland Middle School does not pose any additional exposure to other locations and staff throughout Fulton County Schools; therefore, all other schools will re-open and continue regular schedules on Thursday, March 12, as previously announced.

Fulton County Schools will continue to exercise precautions to lessen the spread of illness by encouraging staff and students to wash their hands regularly and through cleaning and disinfecting all schools, buses and facilities.

– The NCAA basketball tournament and Final Four will be played in empty arenas, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports.

– The Washington Post reports that the United States is beginning to see the first layoffs caused by the coronavirus spread.

“At the Port of Los Angeles, 145 drivers have been laid off and others have been sent home without pay as massive ships from China stopped arriving and work dried up,” the Post reported. “At travel agencies in Atlanta and Los Angeles, several workers lost their jobs as bookings evaporated. Christie Lites, a stage-lighting company in Orlando, laid off more than 100 of its 500 workers nationwide this past week and likely will lay off 150 more, according to chief executive Huntly Christie. Meanwhile, a hotel in Seattle is closing an entire department, a former employee said, and as many as 50 people lost their jobs after the South by Southwest festival in Austin got canceled.”

Here are the recommendations on coronavirus prevention from the DeKalb County Board of Health:

– Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

– Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

– Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

– Stay home when you are sick.

– Cough or sneeze into your elbow or use a tissue to cover it, then throw the tissue in the trash.

– Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.

The DeKalb County Board of Health is encouraging people not to buy facemasks.

“Surgical masks should be reserved for people who exhibit symptoms (to prevent them from spreading the virus through respiratory secretions such as saliva or mucus) and healthcare professionals who are taking care of sick people,” the DeKalb County Board of Health says. “Regular surgical face masks are not effective in protecting against the coronavirus, according to the CDC. A more specialized face mask known as N95 respirators are thicker than surgical masks and are fitted to a person’s face to keep out any viral particles.”

For more information from the Centers for Disease Control, click here.

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