While the lockdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak is in place, governing bodies and their members are trying to adjust to a new way of handling public affairs.
Uncommon until just a few weeks ago, the “virtual meeting” is becoming a more prominent way of doing business.
Think of it as a somewhat-awkward conference call.
A virtual meeting is one in which less than the full number — and maybe not even a quorum — of the elected body is present in the standard meeting place, while other members are linked by telephone or the internet.
The members participate in discussion, debate, and vote on parliamentary motions as if they were physically assembled together in their regular meeting place.
The rationale for a virtual meeting is to enable elected officials and senior administrative staffers to practice social distancing to limit the spread of a contagious disease — in this case, the novel coronavirus.
“The sooner we stay apart now, the sooner we can come back together,” Council Member Barbara Girtman told her peers.
The Volusia County Council convened April 7 for its first virtual meeting. Only Council Member Ben Johnson was on hand and seated at the dais, while County Chair Ed Kelley presided over the meeting remotely. Kelley’s six colleagues listened to, spoke and acted on the matters before them.
“This meeting has been an experiment,” Kelley said, just before the nearly five-hour session was adjourned.
The virtual meeting sometimes sounded not ready for prime time, as there were frequent disconnects of council members; delays in sound broadcast; cases of council members occasionally talking over one another; and strange noises in the audio.
One drawback of the virtual meeting is that the general public is not admitted. Interested observers may, however, monitor the meeting via live video streaming on the internet.
Despite the glitches and difficulties of a parliamentary distancing, the County Council April 7 decided to conduct such meetings each week for as long as the national and state emergency is in effect.
“We need to have more updates,” Council Member Deborah Denys said. “Everything has been interrupted. … I want an official meeting.”
Chair Kelley argued against weekly electronic assemblies, noting County Manager George Recktenwald can make the necessary decisions in the council’s absence.
“This is why we give the responsibility to the staff and George,” he said. “You’re in an emergency situation.”
“This should be strictly for the coronavirus,” Johnson said. “We all need to make sure we are here once a week and make sure we are in the same direction.”
The council ultimately voted unanimously in favor of the weekly meetings. County Attorney Michael Dyer advised the council to advertise the meetings that take place on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month as “special meetings,” so that the council could act on any matters demanding immediate attention.
As an aside, Kelley asked his colleagues to forgo meeting virtually or otherwise April 14, telling them it is his birthday. He was overruled.