Precipitated by a UNC School of Government recommendation that the Mebane City Council adopt a written policy on the procedures on public hearings, Mebane City Attorney Lawson Brown led a discussion during the City’s October City Council meeting on addressing public meetings, and how to move forward with such meetings.
City Council members agreed that it was important to continue streaming their meetings live, as they have been doing the past several months since the onset of COVID-19. Previously, Mebane City Council meetings were not live streamed or posted online - meaning that residents were required to come in person to City Hall if they wanted to know what happened.
Council members agreed that meeting in person was preferable to meeting online, but that all meetings should continue to be live streamed to the community, even after the threat of COVID-19 has somewhat subsided.
“Since we have the capability, it would be foolish not to live stream our meetings,” said City Council member Tim Bradley. “I think if the public can attend and speak, then that is by far the best practice. If we continue with a hybrid, where the Council may be in the Council chambers, and there’s not enough capacity by social distancing to allow everyone else into the room, then yes, certainly, we should allow participation by Zoom. But once we’re back to full meetings, I think the video conferencing with Zoom may be a little confusing. If they have the ability to come and present, then also offering the Zoom may be a little confusing.
“I think it’s really important that we continue to make our meetings public so the people can watch them,” added fellow City Council member Patty Philipps. “We’ve been talking about it for a long time, and it’s a little bit of a shame that it took a crisis for us to actually start doing it. But I’m glad that our meetings are available for everyone to see. I would like to be able to resume meeting in person, just because I think being in the same room, you can have a better conversation with folks. Understand more about what’s going on."
“It’s really important to me to make sure that people who want to come speak before the Council have an opportunity to feel safe when they do appear,” Philipps added. “I don’t think it’s ideal to have people come in electronically. I’ve been in a lot of meetings where a person zooms in and two people zoom in, and the sound quality never is very good. It’s hard to know if they’re raising a hand or trying to interject. People don’t have the opportunity to participate in a full conversation, like full in-person meetings allow us to do.”
“That being said, we’ve talked to staff about meetings in person over the years at City Hall. I think the time we’ve had more than ten people from the public come, have been few and far between. I would love to see more public involvement in our meetings every single month,” Philipps continued. “I might be contradicting myself. I want people to be able to attend, either virtually or in person. If we can make it work so that the citizens have an opportunity to speak to us in person - maybe the staff are the ones in different rooms in City Hall, so that we can meet all of the requirements required by COVID to enable the Council to meet, the senior staff to meet, and as many people in the public who would like to speak during each Council meeting.”
“I’d be very supportive of continued meetings, especially streamed live,” said City Council member Sean Ewing. “I’ve gotten a substantial amount of positive feedback that people can review items if they missed it, or if they’re busy. So I would be very strongly supportive of that, and thank you for doing that so far. In regards to zooming, and people being able to dial or Zoom in, one way or the other, I’d be very supportive of that also. Some folks are just physically unable to make it to the (Council) chambers. Some people may not feel safe coming to the Chambers in the age of COVID. I want to make sure there are as many avenues as possible for folks to be able to voice their opinion to Council. Obviously, like my fellow Council members are saying, in person is best. But I would be very supportive of additional routes, including virtual.”
According to soon-to-be Mebane City Manager Chris Rollins, state guidelines indicate that as a government agency, Mebane could have more than 25 people at their public meetings. But the City has elected to stick with the state-mandated guidelines of 25 or less people in an indoor space for the time being, just to be safe.
“Staff, talking about it, thinks we should stick to those guidelines and stick to 25. So when you add up the City Council and the senior staff, that would leave about 11 people allowed in the room,” Rollins explained. “One option would be that folks could have 11 in here, and if you had more than that, people could stand outside. We would literally have to walk outside and ask somebody to come inside to speak on a certain item, and ask someone else to leave. We would just have to go through the process. So if you are here for a public comment, you come in and make your public comment, and then you go back out. We will just have to move people in and out of the room as long as we have this limit of 25 folks.”
Mayor Ed Hooks asked if a television could be set up for a live stream, allowing public speakers to keep up with the Council meeting prior to their public comments.
“We have two rooms in the front lobby. There’s a TV in the front lobby that we could hook in. There’s a TV in the conference room that we could hook in,” he said. “They could be watching it on their phone on YouTube. We have the ability to have people socially distance in the building, but not in the room at the same time.”
“While we’re still on restrictions, and can’t put everybody in the meeting room that wants to attend, you’re going to have to figure out something electronic. Whether they come to an adjoining room, or we continue to do it from home. I was talking about when we have normal meetings, I think it would be confusing to continue to do it remotely,” interjected Bradley.
City Attorney Lawson Brown indicated that if you have a virtual public hearing, you have to have a second meeting if you have public hearing items in order to host a proper vote on the matter.
“Legally, a remote meeting would be with the City Council not having a quorum at City Hall,” Brown explained. “If you have a quorum at the City Municipal Building, then it is not considered a remote meeting, and you would not need to have a follow-up meeting. It would be the traditional in-person meeting.
Remote meetings are only an option when there is a declared State of Emergency by either the Governor or the General Assembly. With North Carolina in a continued State of Emergency at this present time due to COVID-19, Mebane can continue to have virtual meetings until the State of Emergency is formally lifted.
“I feel like face-to-face is best,” Bradley said. “It’s less confusing. You understand people better. You get a better feel for what the speaker is saying - particularly when you get a speaker, and their audio is delayed. Wouldn’t we be encouraging people not to attend? And to do remote would further exacerbate the confusion? I certainly don’t have a problem with (virtual meetings). I just thought once we got back to normal Council meetings, that we would live stream, and if people wanted to speak to Council, they would need to come and speak to the Council like they always have.”
“I just think that while we’ve been forced to have remote meetings, we’ve dealt with it,” Bradley continued. “And in most cases, it’s worked very well. In some cases, you have a little trouble understanding. It’s just better if people come to speak their mind, or (City Clerk) Stephanie (Shaw) reads (public comments). I want to encourage as much participation as possible. It just seems to me that it’s going to be a confusing public hearing when you have people standing up (in person), and then they sit down and someone comes in electronically.”
“It’s very difficult when you’ve got people coming in remote,” Bradley added. “I think the option where people can submit public comments, and have them read into the record. That seems fair to me.”
“I think we really can move forward. In-person is preferred. In-person is best,” added Councilman Ewing. “But working for a global company, we deal almost only with online meetings, and it works extremely well. I think we can do that moving forward in Mebane.”
The City Council will formally vote on a new public meetings policy at its November meeting.