Cities go digital, space out participants to conduct government meetings during pandemic

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Covington’s aldermen and several department heads joined the Tuesday, March 24 meeting of of the board of mayor and aldermen via GoToMeeting in an effort to stay in compliance with CDC recommendations on social distancing. The mayor, recorder/treasurer and city attorney attended the meeting in person as did the mayor’s assistant, Rebecca Ray, and IT professional Nic Shaw. Photo by Echo Day

Teleconferencing is nothing new, but it’s not the way city business is usually conducted in the City of Covington.

Joining mayor Justin Hanson, recorder/treasurer Tina Dunn and city attorney Rachel Witherington virtually were six aldermen – five of whom fall into high-risk categories should they contract the COVID-19 coronavirus – and several department heads.

On the west side of the room, where a podium is always located, a laptop sat on the bar to display the meeting as it was being conducted live. Opposite that, a podium had been moved into place on the east side of the room, a flexible tripod holding an iPad directed at the front of the room in order to stream the meeting through Facebook Live.

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It was the very first virtual meeting of a government body in Tipton County history.

“This is new territory for us all,” said Hanson, who sat in his usual seat with Dunn and Witherington on either side, but six feet away, from him.

In addition to a newspaper reporter, in the gallery sat Rebecca Ray, the mayor’s assistant, and Nic Shaw, the city’s IT professional, and public works director David Gray spaced out in such a way that was compliant with current CDC recommendations for social distancing.

The March 24 meeting of the board of mayor and aldermen had few people in attendance in an effort to conform to CDC guidelines on social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Photo by Echo Day

It’s not just new territory for the City of Covington, staying safe during a pandemic is new territory for everyone.

Prior to officially starting the meeting, the mayor and aldermen unanimously passed a resolution adopting the use of virtual meetings. Each single business item for vote had to be done through a roll call, which is when each alderman is called by name to enter a vote.

And while the meeting was not without its technical difficulties – mostly feedback issues with microphones and iPads being too close in proximity – Hanson thought it went well.

“I’m grateful the governor issued the executive order allowing us to keep that social distance that’s required and still conduct the business of the people. The charter requires us to meet twice a month and, occasionally I’ll cancel a meeting around the holiday season, but it does require us, as a general rule, to meet twice a month. This digital technology allows us to meet that obligation.”

A podium and flexible tripod hold an iPad being used to stream Covington’s meeting of the board of mayor and aldermen through Facebook Live on Tuesday, March 24. Photo by Echo Day

The city has considered streaming its meeting through Facebook Live, at the inquiry of alderman Keith Phelps, for months, but Tuesday was the first time it has done so.

The mayor and each alderman has a city-issued iPad and board agendas and packets went digital approximately a year ago, so the transition wasn’t too difficult, Hanson said. Citizens are welcomed to download them from the city’s website, covingtontn.com.

“All of our minutes, audits, financial statements are available online. We’re trying to make it as accessible as possible and be as transparent as possible.”

Hanson said the city will likely continue to stream the meetings on Facebook, and the official video of each meeting will continue to be uploaded to the city’s website within 48 hours as has been done for many years.

Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order requires the meetings remain open to the public and, though city hall’s lobby has been closed to the public during business hours, the public is able to access the building for the meetings.

For those who wish to remain at home, city leaders have asked emails with concerns be sent to stayinformed@covingtontn.com.

Covington is set to have committee meetings each Tuesday at 4 p.m. and board meetings the second and fourth Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.

Not virtual, but distanced

Munford also held its regularly-scheduled meeting of the board of mayor an aldermen.

It was anything but a regular meeting, however.

To stay in compliance with the CDC’s recommendation that gatherings be limited to 10 or fewer people, department heads were told not to attend meeting, said mayor Dwayne Cole.
In attendance were Cole, plus six aldermen and recorder Sherry Yelvington.
Cole sat in his usual seat in the middle, with two aldermen on outside edges, two aldermen at a conference table and two aldermen in chairs.
The only items on the agenda involved payroll, bills which needed to be approved for payment and receiving shipments.
“We are trying our best to conduct business as usual as much as we can,” Cole said. “This is certainly a disruption to everyday life and it is affecting businesses everywhere, essential and non-essential. It’s having a great negative effect.”

Like other cities, Munford’s agendas and minutes are available on the city’s website.

Its next meeting is set for April 27.

Other cities

Atoka has cancelled after-hours meetings, but no other bodies have yet discussed cancellations or alternative plans. Most are not set to meet again until April 13-14.

“This is a time of the unknown, a time of uncharted waters, a journey that we’re all walking on together,” said Hanson. “Folks, we have to take this seriously, this is a serious issue, a pandemic that’s hit our community and we want to do everything we can to mitigate the spread.”

Jeff Ireland contributed to this story.

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