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The state law that allows Utah cities to hold electronic meetings largely anticipated the need for a council member or two who were unable to make it to City Hall to tune in and participate from anywhere.
What it didn’t anticipate, though, was a need for widespread social distancing measures to slow the spread of a highly contagious virus.
Now, Utah cities with ordinances allowing for remote meetings are scrambling to figure out how to simultaneously abide by a state code that seems to prohibit entirely online meetings and the president’s guidance that people not meet in groups larger than 10 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus while still encouraging public participation in local government.
“It’s a different paradigm,” said Cameron Diehl, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, which serves all 248 of the state’s cities and towns.
State law requires that all public meetings have at least one “anchor location” in a public building so that residents and other interested parties can attend and monitor the meeting and provide comment, if they choose. And some cities have ordinances requiring at least a majority of council members be onsite for public meetings.
But as the number of coronavirus cases in the state continues to swell, the Utah League of Cities and Towns has been working with the Lieutenant Governor’s Office to determine whether cities can hold an entirely remote meeting and how to do that with the anchor location requirement, Diehl said.
“This is the first time we’re seeing something like this where the recommendation is not to have anybody there rather than what you traditionally think of with remote meetings, which is we have some people who are out of town and want to participate, so you have the anchor location and have council members call in because they’re out of town for business,” he said.
As they await further guidance, municipalities across the Salt Lake Valley that planned to hold meetings this week have taken a variety of approaches to the question of how to prioritize public safety and continue their public work.
Utah’s capital city hosted its first work meeting held entirely over the Internet on Tuesday afternoon, with council members and most staff participating via video. City Hall remained open for in-person comments.
It was a “new way” of “conducting the public’s meeting in unusual circumstances,” Salt Lake City Council Chairman Chris Wharton said Tuesday, but he assured residents that the meeting was still open to their feedback and asked them to exercise patience with any glitches.
In Midvale, the City Council ultimately decided to cancel its Tuesday meeting following new guidance on gathering size from President Donald Trump on Monday. It is now working to come up with a solution that will ensure public involvement in an area where approximately 11% of residents lack access to the internet, according to Laura Magness, a spokeswoman for the city.
“We want to come up with the best plan for if people want to provide input and need to know what’s going on at the meetings they’ll have that opportunity,” she said.
The city will likely offer a phone line for people to speak to the council, as well as the ability to email and make Facebook comments, Magness said. Midvale leaders are also considering the use of rooms to separate groups larger than 10 at its anchor location.
“But we can only handle so many individuals,” she said. “If 100 people showed up, which is not likely going to happen, we have to prepare for that. We wouldn’t be able to have them all in one location.”
In Murray, the council held an in-person meeting Tuesday night and encouraged residents to send in their public comments rather than come to City Hall.
Council Chairman Dale Cox said Monday that he wasn’t aware of any plans to mitigate the size of the crowd if a large number of people did decide to show up, though he noted that the council usually only sees a handful of people come to each meeting.
“We’re hoping there won’t be a big crowd,” he said.
“It’s kind of a Catch-22,” Cox added. “If somebody feels they have to be there, we’ll do everything we can to keep the social distancing. But if not, if they feel comfortable sending their questions by email, then we’ll definitely read their statements online and put them in the record.”
Riverton City also held an in-person meeting on Tuesday, though staff there were looking at ways to support participation or public comment via phone for upcoming meetings, according to spokesman Casey Saxton. There could also be cancelations of meetings in the future, he said.
“Definitely in our future meetings as long as the current situation continues we’ll just encourage people to participate online,” Saxton noted.
In West Valley, all city council members were expected to call in through a video service like Zoom, according to spokesman Sam Johnson. The council chambers remained open Tuesday night and the city planned to open up additional rooms if more than 10 people showed up so they could watch the meeting while maintaining social distancing. Residents could also tune in online and provide public comment by phone.
“We want to give our residents a chance however they want to participate,” Johnson said. “If they’re uncomfortable coming into City Hall, this opens up the possibility for them to still be able to comment as needed.”
In Weber County, the cities of Ogden, Roy, West Haven and North Ogden have canceled their meetings in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus, the Standard-Examiner reported Tuesday.
While cities across the state may be taking slightly different approaches, Diehl said leaders in each one are having conversations about which of their functions are critical and what can be pushed back until the virus blows over.
“That’s the question that’s being asked in every City Hall around the state right now is. ‘what is an essential service?’" Diehl said. "What is essential infrastructure? Who are the essential employees? Who can work from home? What decisions does the council need to make right now? What decisions can be postponed a few weeks?”