BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos Councilors are divided on when Council as well as County boards and commissions should return to in-person meetings. Although there was no vote on the issue during last week’s virtual meeting, Council heard from County Manager Harry Burgess on some of the options being discussed by staff and Councilors got to voice their opinions. Even though the state legislature conducted its 60-day session in hybrid and schools throughout the state are returning to in-person learning, it doesn’t look line Council, boards or commission meetings are quite ready to follow suit.
Burgess noted that the County has been through the pandemic and is at the point where some light is being seen at the end of the tunnel.
“At the same time there are some unknowns that we may face such as potential regression of the current status levels that are analyzed by the state based on actions we’re not necessarily in control of. The conversation has been, as we look around ourselves and see various reopenings, when is going to be the appropriate time, not specific to our operations because we’ve started that process of increasing our level of services, but specifically for our various public meetings and whether or not they should be back to the in-person status. We’re talking not only just Council meetings, but boards and commissions as well,” he said.
Burgess said staff has been considering how things might be managed going forward. He said many people may wish to continue to have the opportunity to participate in meetings from their own homes.
“That begs some questions as to how we would open. Should we garner some of these benefits that we’ve experienced lately and try to create some sort of combination of what we did in the past versus what we’ve done in the last year to create something going forward?” he said. “I think we can do anything the Council wants us to do but some of the decisions come with some pitfalls. For example, I believe if we try to do in-person meetings with both Zoom and Granicus, depending on how we arrange that, we could introduce some problems into our process, particularly because of the delays associated with the Granicus product.”
Burgess explained how County meetings were broadcast pre-pandemic and how meetings are conducted now by interacting in Zoom and transmitting by Granicus. As the County looks forward, Burgess discussed some of the complexities associated with combining Zoom and in-person processes. He explained that some preparation would be necessary whatever option the Council should choose. He said plexi-glass shields were being installed in Council Chambers between all nine seats on the dais. When the social distancing requirements are implemented for calculating the number of people that can be in chambers, Burgess estimated there would be 25-30 seats for the audience which would include staff, media and others. He said there is the ability to broadcast meetings into the lobby space and Room 110 so that there could be some sort of overflow and/or waiting room.
“”I think there are ways we can minimize the number of people in the room in order to meet COVID safe practices. If you introduce public comment to that same room, you are probably going to get rid of five of those 25-30 seats because we have to line up the public commenters at some point and we have to consider sanitization of the microphone and the lectern in between individuals. We can accomplish all this but that would mean interruptions to your general meetings,” he said.
He discussed some of the technical side of the issue and said staff believes it is possible to broadcast the live in-person meeting via Zoom.
“However, we’d likely have the individual in the audio-visual booth running Zoom so you as Councilors individually would not be again conducting two meetings, looking at people in the audience as well as on your computer screen,” he said.
Burgess said some of the options basically come down to some expectations Council may have and have the example of whether Council would want the same system replicated in White Rock or suspend work sessions for the immediate future and hold the meetings in Council Chambers where the system would already be established. Those on the dais could wear masks but that could muffle conversation, he said.
“We would have to learn from the process and would not have perfection on the first night.
The weirdness may come in if Council decided to have an in-person and yet not have in-person participation which raises the question in my mind of why we would do that as if would not be much different to what we have here today,” Burgess said.
He said the next issue is when to start in-person meetings.
“We’ve talked about it in leadership. The desire has been expressed that budget meetings may be more informative if we’re able to have that back and forth between staff and Council. I think we need to consider our own message to the public in what we are considering. Chair Ryti mentioned our signage about – stay home, wear a mask. Are we being hypocritical if we are saying stay home but then invite people to an in-person public meeting?” Burgess said.
He noted that during the pandemic there have been localities that have continued to meet in person but that many of them did not allow the public into the meeting, instead they broadcast.
“Many did as we did and did fully Zoom. On the County Manager list serve there has been in the last couple of months a couple of counties that have gone to an in-person type of meeting. I think that’s the pressure we’re feeling and the reason the question is coming up at this point,” Burgess said.
Council Chair Randall Ryti said the question of going back to in-person meetings has been coming and that it’s obvious with the County in Turquoise status to ask if this is something the Council can do. He said he thought it would be good for Councilors to have a discussion to have more input on the issue which is why he asked for it to be put on the agenda
Councilor Sara Scott was concerned that the County’s messaging has been fairly consistent – “get vaccinated, let’s keep the numbers down, keep going, we’re almost there”.
“So my question is what’s the driver for doing this? What is the benefit we see because if we’re going to do something like this, our community has fairly generally – there are clearly some different opinions – wanted us to promote being safe, wanted us to take these COVID considerations seriously, and not rush out and do things that would create unsafe conditions for folks in our community or our businesses,” she said. “I’m not clear right now on what the benefit is or the driver. I would want to understand what the improvement is in engagement and access and transparency.”
Scott said some people aren’t going to feel safe attending an in-person meeting right now and she doesn’t want to make some people feel like they can’t attend the meetings because we’re going to have this situation where it may be difficult to have a two-way dialog.
“Again, what I would suggest is we look forward to a time to revisit this,” she said.
She noted that considering the staff, and others that are involved in Council meetings typically that’s 25-30 seats.
“I’m concerned about the message and access and having that be equal to all different folks in our community – those that don’t feel safe maybe going to a meeting with 10s of people in a closed space. Maybe there is a very clear benefit that I’m missing that hasn’t been articulated yet. If there is, I’d be interested in hearing that. I suggest setting a time to revisit this, perhaps every couple of months and see where we are,” Scott said.
Council Vice Chair James Robinson said he thought it was a good time to start bringing up the issue because Council is heading into budget sessions.
“I can understand the concerns about access and how we let those who don’t want to attend the meeting still participate,” he said, adding that the current Zoom call only had four participants that weren’t County staff or Council. “They can still watch us, they can still send us emails, they can phone in or if we can find another way to utilize Zoom as another access for them to provide public comment, then we’ve solved that issue of having them be in the building.”
Robinson said that his experience of in-person Council meetings indicates that just like the Zoom meetings, County staff outnumbers public participation 98 percent of the time. He noted that the number of County staff attending meetings could be reduced so that those who don’t have a reason to be there don’t have to be in the room and could attend from their home or office which would allow for members of the public to attend.
“We’re starting to see things kind of come back to a semblance of normalcy but a reduced one. Our gyms are full with sports coming back at a reduced amount of seating, our football field has sports coming back. I think bringing back the small token of normalcy of Council being in Chambers would help get us through this pandemic without sending mixed messaging because things are starting to open back up,” Robinson said. “Our restaurants are open more as well as our facilities – the library, the teen center, the golf course. I think it’s the right time to consider this because I think after a year it’s worth trying to start moving back into where we were before we had the protective measures of the plexi-glass.”
Robinson said there would be new things that would have to be done to make sure it was safe but that those things would not be unique to Los Alamos.
“One reason I support this is I kind of want Council out of my bedroom. I telework. I don’t have anything else going on. On a day like today, I start work at 7 a.m. and now we’re at 9:19 p.m. and I haven’t left my office chair, so for me personally to have a meeting where it didn’t take place in the only room I have in my house that doesn’t have my TV in it would be great,” he said.
Councilor David Reagor said that of course he is in favor of starting the meetings up again as soon as possible.
“I’m not really concerned about the health risks; I think that’s all pretty much under control. The only side thing that I was concerned about was the comment Burgess made about how do people have input who are scared of the virus and scared of going out in public. If that Zoom interface is not figured out completely, then we can’t do it. We have to have a very easy way that we can have a big group meeting and we’re all in the room, yet we can all still see the same Zoom feeds and listen to people who just dialed in or Zoomed in and want to make comments,” Reagor said. “In this way, everybody that’s concerned about the virus or people that just do not meet the overflow requirements of the room – some of County staff can dial it in, instead of being there physically. If we can solve that problem, then we start at the beginning of April. That would be my first choice.”
Councilor Sean Williams said he thought Scott’s question was a very good one.
“What’s the reason to do it? To me, the reason is all of the sort of things that you don’t think about with in person meetings, namely the side conversations, not obviously violating open meetings, but the conversations with people that show up and talking with the press or talking with staff. All of that is lost with Zoom which is an extremely isolating platform. The social side benefits are the reason to do it,” Williams said. “With that said, I completely agree with Councilor Reagor that the only way that this would make sense is if there is proper Zoom integration so that people can stay home and still participate.”
The other condition he would have on going back to in-person meetings, Williams said is the unanimous agreement of Council.
“So if Councilor Scott does not want to go back to in person, then I completely respect that. I think that’s an extremely reasonable position to take and if that is her position, then we shouldn’t do it,” he said.
Councilor David Izraelevitz said he agreed with Councilor Scott.
“I think we need to revisit this at a future time. One of the reasons is the third community that we need to be respectful of, which is staff. At this point I presume that there is a fair amount of staff that have not qualified for vaccination yet, and even if it’s a consent item, one of the reasons other than the compelling narratives of the County Council, one of the reasons why staff is there is in case there’s a consent item that needs to be discussed or some of them feel that it’s their responsibility to know first-hand what Council says,” he said. “I don’t want to make it a condition of their employment that they have to attend a live meeting if they don’t feel safe doing so. Until we have kind of widespread vaccination and I don’t want to know who has pre-existing comorbidities, I think it should just be a personal choice, so until that’s the case then I don’t feel that we can expect staff to be there, even if all seven Councilors or even the public feels we should be there.”
Izraelevitz said Councilors get to vote and the public gets to decide if they want to give comment.
“But staff, it would be their responsibility, their condition of employment in a sense, to be there whether they feel comfortable or not, so for that reason, I think we need to wait longer to decide whether to go in-person or not, until we’re confident that anyone on staff who wants to be vaccinated or feels that to be an issue has been vaccinated. For that reason I think that we need to wait longer at the very least until Phase 2 starts and probably a month or however long that is so that the vaccine is widely available. I think that we have been able to manage reasonably well and at this point we have learned a lot of lessons so, like Councilor Scott, I don’t see a compelling need to go anywhere else,” he said.
Councilor Denise Derkacs also believed it is too soon to go to in-person meetings.
“I know we’re all anxious to get out of our houses and to get back to normal, but I think we have to exercise caution and try not to resume things too quickly. I pulled up the COVID report and it’s showing that 41.8 percent have received one vaccine and only 19.6 percent have received two vaccines, so that’s still not a huge number of people that have been vaccinated before we have these public gatherings. I guess one question would be will we require people to be vaccinated to come to the meetings and then that opens up a whole can of worms,” she said. “Now that we have been doing Zoom meetings for so long, we seem to have learned to use it effectively and seem to often have increased public participation in the meetings. I think as others have said some people will be reluctant to come out this early to attend meetings and then you get into issues Mr. Burgess raised about trying to do both kinds of meetings and it gets complicated.”
Derkacs said she wondered everyone would be wearing masks as they were being recorded during in-person meetings.
“It’s kind of awkward. I guess my inclination is that we should resist the urge to open up too soon and revisit this a little later. By July, it’s probably a good time. We may be able to do it sooner than that, but April may be just a little bit too soon,” she said.
Councilor Robinson said he can understand the urge not to reopen until more people have been vaccinated. He said he was fine with putting off in-person meetings until a later date but doesn’t feel it needs to be until July. He agreed that the decision should be unanimous.
“I feel the protective measures are in place. Unless it’s a contentious item, we generally don’t have a mass of public who attend our meetings. I would love to see more but that’s the truth of the matter,” he said. “I feel we have to recognize that sooner or later we should become more comfortable with being in person because this Zoom is a barrier to us being able to directly address the public.”
Councilor Scott said she wanted to be super clear.
“This isn’t about me. I feel if I was up on the dais I would be safe. I would have plexi-glass, I’m distant, I’m far way from everybody in the rest of the room. This to me is all about everyone in the community having equal opportunity for access and participation in the meetings. Because I’m hearing that technically we’re not quite sure we’re there, I’m quite concerned about going to a meeting in person,” she said. “We’re at a very low vaccination rate. It’s good, we’re great, but we’re not there yet.”
Scott said she thinks Councilors are all on the same page but need to make sure that everyone can participate.
“We don’t want to get in a situation where we’ve got some clunky interface that we’re trying to deal with so that people who don’t feel safe coming in can’t access. So I think we just keep an eye on it. Every week we’re getting updates; we’re understanding what the infection rates and vaccinations are. We can’t predict if it’s going to be May, June, July. Nobody’s going to be able to know that right now. So my suggestion is just keep an eye on it,” she said.
Councilor Williams said he agreed that public engagement has been higher because of Zoom and that port-pandemic it might be worth exploring whether or not Zoom integration into the audio visual booth in Council Chambers could just be a long-term option for public involvement.
Chair Ryti noted that like everyone else, he’s a little tired of being on Zoom.
“It’s been a year almost. We have made it work. Let’s continue to make it work,” he said.
Ryti noted that he brought up the issue because budget time is coming up and because of the County’s status being at the Turquoise level on the state map.
“We need to wait until we’re comfortable and we feel like the public is getting their input in. And if we feel like there’s a hybrid model that really works, we might want to have that tested by the staff and see if it could work because I think that would be beneficial to a lot of the boards,” Ryti said.
He noted the benefits of being able to have a consultant join Council earlier in the meeting with no travel involved and easy rescheduling to a different date.
“I think for some of the boards, they would probably prefer it. We’re not going to want to make everyone meet in person if it’s more convenient to meet electronically,” Ryti said.
“I will reschedule this. We’ll see how we do in the next month. We’ll look at that integration, we’ll see what it’s possible to do and we’ll keep the Council apprised,” he said.