Granite Shoals could tweak virtual participation in public meetings

Granite Shoals City Council 11-16-22

Granite Shoals Mayor Aaron Garcia (center) listens to audience comments on virtual meeting participation during City Council’s regular meeting Nov. 16. Several changes to the virtual meeting participation policy, including online comment forms, shorter speaking times, and new software, but no direct action was taken. Garcia is flanked by Councilor Samantha Ortis, who voiced her support for continued online participation, and recently appointed Councilor Kevin Flack, who sat on his first meeting. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

The Granite Shoals City Council debated the merits of virtual audience participation during its regular meeting Nov. 16. Changes were proposed, but no action was taken. 

The city uses Zoom, an online video conferencing platform, to allow online attendance and participation during council meetings. Some councilors and residents say the virtual access is time-consuming and should be regulated, while others call it a crucial tool for residents who cannot attend meetings in person. 

Proposed changes include an online audience participation form, shortening public comment speaking times from six minutes to three minutes for virtual and in-person speakers, and changing the virtual meeting software. The council will further address the proposals during its next regular meeting, which is 6 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 30, at Granite Shoals City Hall, 2221 N. Phillips Ranch Road.

Currently, Granite Shoals does not have a procedure for filling out online participation forms or any language in the city charter for how that could be implemented. The Charter Review Commission is looking into the matter.

The city is also considering switching its video conferencing software from Zoom to GoTo Meeting at the recommendation of Interim City Manager Peggy Smith. She said it would be easier to manage.

“I think in order to expedite some of these meetings, we should consider free Zoom access with streaming, but not necessarily invite comments off-the-cuff from home or other various locations,” said Councilor Steve Hougen during the Nov. 16 meeting.

He said irrelevant Zoom comments are distracting and can cause unnecessary delays during working government meetings and suggested that online participation be limited to viewing only. 

To punctuate his point, an online audience member was recognized earlier in the meeting and given an opportunity to speak on an agenda item, but they instead spoke for two minutes on another subject that was unrelated to immediate council business.

Councilor Phil Ort voiced disagreement with Hougen’s proposal.

“We would be excluding a part of our citizenry by saying they can watch the meetings or listen to it but they can’t participate on Zoom,” he said. “I really don’t see it taking that much more time from our council meetings.”

Ort was backed up by in-person audience member Kiel Arnone, who voiced support for online participation.

“I agree wholeheartedly with Phil on this,” Arnone said. “Our citizens up on Zoom deserve to have input just as much as our citizens sitting here.”

Councilor Samantha Ortis specifically countered Hougen’s point, also voicing her support for continued online participation.

“If we are not going to accept comments off-the-cuff from our Zoom participants, then should we not accept comments off-the-cuff from our participants that are here in the audience?” she asked.

Hougen acknowledged her point, but noted those who wish to speak in person are required to fill out public comment forms or be recognized by the mayor.

The public comment forms require a participant note their name, address, and the specific item on which they wish to speak. If they speak at other points during the meeting, it is at the discretion of the mayor.

While online participants are technically supposed to fill out these forms as well, it has not been enforced or facilitated.

“I’m just asking that those on Zoom are required to meet the same requirements that we in person have to meet,” said Charter Review Commission Chairwoman Libby Edwards after being recognized by Mayor Aaron Garcia for a public comment.

Councilor Ron Munos, who agreed with both sides of the argument, suggested any decisions be postponed.

“This is not something we’ve really given a lot of thought to, and it would be nice to have a little soak time on it,” he said. “We’ve heard valid points on both sides, and I think it would be prudent to think about it a little bit.”

The council took no direct action on any proposals, and Garcia asked that they be put on the next meeting agenda.

dakota@thepicayune.com

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