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Clarkston plans return to in-person meetings after meeting virtually for three years

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Clarkston plans return to in-person meetings after meeting virtually for three years

Clarkston City Hall. Photo by Dean Hesse.

Clarkston, GA — At its Feb. 28 work session, the Clarkston city council made plans to repeal the resolution declaring a COVID-19-related state of emergency, which the city council voted to extend last January.

In order to conduct meetings remotely, state law says that agencies including municipal governments must declare that a state of emergency exists which justifies suspending certain requirements of the laws governing official meetings. Clarkston has not held in-person meetings since March 2020.

While many government entities have added hybrid meetings post-pandemic in order to encourage public participation, most returned to in-person meetings in late 2021 or early 2022. Clarkston’s city council has continued holding virtual meetings exclusively. When the city’s declaration of a state of emergency was discussed last January, a spike in COVID-19 cases due to the omicron variant was the primary concern council members raised in favor of extending the resolution.

“I have been asked by Clarkston residents who previously attended on a regular basis who don’t feel comfortable with Zoom [about returning to in person meetings]. We just don’t have a rationale for continuing. Everyone else has returned to in-person meetings,” Council member Awet Eyasu said.

Eyasu added that hybrid meetings were a possibility, but that he felt it was time to return to city hall. “This disease is going to continue to be around for the foreseeable future,” Eyasu added.

Vice Mayor Debra Johnson said that she agreed that it was time to return to in-person meetings, but the fact that COVID-19 is still around means that some restrictions should be imposed in terms of capacity of meetings and mask-wearing.

City Manager Shawanna Qawiy said that the city offices were open, but that city staff wore masks when around groups. Qawiy added that it would be possible to stream meetings, so people can attend remotely.

In response to a question from Eyasu about limiting capacity and mask-wearing, City Attorney Stephen Quinn said that he believes that the city has the authority to set reasonable rules for use of city property. Quinn added that Qawiy has the authority to make decisions about things like mask-wearing in city buildings.

In response to questions from Mayor Beverly Burks, Quinn said that adding a Zoom option is a viable alternative means of attending the meeting and likely to increase participation.

“I’ve observed at other local government meetings that some people really like participating through Zoom,” said Quinn.

The council decided to initially limit the number of attendees to 37 including council and staff, with the option of relocating to the Clarkston Community Center or another larger venue when a large group of attendees are expected. Those who wish to make public comments must check in with the city clerk, whether they are attending in person or remotely.

Council member Laura Hopkins expressed concern that she lives with immunocompromised family members and does not want to be in a room with unmasked, unvaccinated people.

Resident Brian Medford said that he was generally in favor of returning to in-person meetings, but that he did not miss some of the chaos and lack of order of earlier times. He added that some people in the community were anxious for a return to in-person meetings but, “They better show up.”

The first in-person meeting is planned to be the city council’s next work session on March 28.

In other business at the work session:

— The council discussed possible allocations of the American Rescue Plan Act funds remaining to the city, including extensions of existing programs such as food distribution, weatherization, utility assistance, and rental assistance, and new proposals such as assistance with homeowner’s association fees for people who suffered financial hardship because of COVID. A revised list of allocations, not including the new proposal, will be voted on at the council’s regular meeting March 7.

All the remaining ARPA funds must be allocated by 2024, and spent by the end of 2026.

— The city of Clarkston has a contract with Professional Probation Services, Inc. to supervise misdemeanor offenders placed on probation by the municipal court. PPSI is requesting a renewal of the contract, along with an increase of monthly fees from $35 to $40 for basic types of probation supervision. The fees are paid by the individual offender, not the city.

— The council is planning a proclamation recognizing Pastor Karl Moore of the Clarkston First Baptist Church for 22 years of service to the community and wishing him a happy 65th birthday. The proclamation will be presented March 19.

— The council also plans to recognize Indian Creek Elementary Principal Dr. Stephanie Brown-Bryant for being declared Principal of the Year by the DeKalb County School District. The city will present the proclamation at Indian Creek’s field day on March 24.

All items will be voted on at the council’s regular business meeting on March 7.

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