The Superior City Council is considering changes in the way it conducts business in the wake of the pandemic.
After months of gathering on Google Meet and calling in to attend because of the declared emergency, Mayor Jim Paine is proposing changes that would allow councilors to attend by audio or videoconference.
Currently, city code allows members who can’t physically attend a meeting to phone in their votes on issues before the council at the discretion of the body’s president.
Paine said through much of the discussion with council leadership, he took the position that remote attendance shouldn’t be allowed at all but came to change his mind on the issue.
“A meeting is different when you’re not there,” Paine said. “There’s a lot of value to both the individual member, to the body and to the public as a whole to actually, physically attend the meeting. Of course, you see and hear the meeting better. There’s a certain amount lost when you attend virtually.”
Technical issues can hamper the meeting, and nonverbal communication and the influence of the public can be lost in a virtual environment, the mayor said.
“There’s a lot that gets communicated in the space,” Paine said. “You can tell when they’re upset, when they support something. There’s a lot to be read right in the meeting.”
When citizens come to a meeting in a physical space, Paine said it allows them to better influence the council when they support or disagree with an issue.
“To some extent, I think they expect to look you in the eye and speak directly to you,” Paine said. “They’re a human being. They want to have a real conversation with you. That’s harder to do through a screen or over the phone. Finally, it humanizes the meeting and makes general control of the meeting easier.”
Still, Paine said he recognizes that the council has had success in conducting city business through the pandemic using technology and there are times councilors simply cannot physically attend for very valid reasons.
Under the proposed changes, audio and videoconferencing would be allowed provided the City Clerk’s Office is notified 24 hours in advance of the meeting. Councilors wouldn’t be required to justify virtual attendance with council leadership. The same accommodations would be allowed for standing and special committees when a member is unable to attend in person.
Virtual attendance wouldn’t count toward the quorum so a meeting can’t take place unless most members are physically present. And virtual attendance and participation would not be allowed for any matter that requires a physical presence to observe witnesses or examine evidence.
City Attorney Frog Prell said when the council or a committee serves a quasi-judicial body, such as when a license is being considered for revocation, members need to be physically present to hear from witnesses and examine evidence.
“Exhibit sharing and people study is tricky if you have a heavy virtual presence,” Prell said.
Councilor Nick Ledin said it would never be his goal to attend meetings virtually, but he recognizes that life can sometimes get in the way of being in the room on a Tuesday night. He said the ordinance would allow him or other councilors to represent their districts when life gets in the way of being physically present.
“I think this is heading in the right direction,” Councilor Brent Fennessey said. “This is 2021. We should be able to use the technology we have.”
The council considers the ordinance change when it meets April 7.