After meeting entirely digitally since March due to COVID-19 concerns, Montrose City Council met using a “hybrid” format for the regular work sessions on July 20. The format had some staff and four city council members in the city council chambers (with masks and social distancing, as well as Plexi-glass shields installed between people at tables, which can be moved around as needed), while the public and remaining city staff tuned in via Zoom.
Councilor Roy Anderson continued to participate via Zoom because of health concerns, but he said that the hybrid format, along with the remote meetings in previous weeks, were both effective in making sure the city was able to continue its operations.
“We’ve been able to conduct the city’s business as effectively as ever and still keep everyone safe,” Anderson said. “This made it possible to fully participate in the meeting and at the same time, those who wanted to be in the council chambers had that opportunity. I think it was a really neat use of technology and a great solution.”
Mayor Barbara Bynum, who until Monday had run all city council meetings in her term as mayor through a virtual format, said that while the social interaction component of the meetings was missed, no productivity was sacrificed during the switch. As council moves toward returning to completely in-person meetings, she said the members will take what they learned from the virtual format and use it to increase accessibility to the community.
“We’re dipping our toes into having in-person meetings,” Bynum said. “We want to take it slowly and evaluate what works and what doesn't work. They need to be effective, accessible and they need to be safe, and we’re balancing those things as we figure it out.”
During the pandemic, many city employees have been working from home, and for those unable to do so, social distancing and other safety adjustments have been made to protect both workers and the community.
“City operations are moving full steam ahead. I think it’s very positive that the city has been able to conduct its business almost without any impact from COVID. Those who can work from home have been able to, and the public works department has been able to get things done,” Anderson said. “I’m really proud of how the city has responded and kept people safe, and at the same time, got all their work done.”
Bynum said that while the remote meetings allowed city employees to communicate, it could have had multiple impacts on the public, who either had better access to meetings due to the flexibility of location, or less access due to lack of Internet access or experience with Zoom.
“It might have made it easier for people to comment from home — depending on where they live or their work schedule, it would be easier not to have to travel to council chambers, but I don’t want to dismiss the technology barrier that that creates for some people,” Bynum said. She emphasized that public comments were taken via Zoom, phone, or written in an email or letter in order to expand opportunities for the community to make their voices heard.
She also said that while it looked different in terms of format (including the ability for public commenters to share their screens), the amount of public comment was about the same as when meetings took place in person.
Anderson also said that while being in person at the council chambers will continue to be the most effective way to conduct meetings, the introduction of Zoom and remote options can make it more accessible for homebound members of the community to participate in local government.
“I think in general, being back in the council chambers is the right way to do it when that’s possible,” Anderson said. “This allows participation that we couldn’t do before. … I think that’s a powerful new capability that we didn’t have some years ago.”
Both Bynum and Anderson said the meetings happened in a streamlined format despite the obstacle of COVID-19 due to a team effort by the city’s IT department, along with other city employees who helped make it happen.
“Initially it seemed as if there was a lot more interest, a lot more people showed up to the virtual meetings, but I’m not sure if that was just the novelty of it all or if there were things more people were interested in for those meetings,” said Greg Story, IT Manager for the City of Montrose, who coordinated the virtual and hybrid meetings.
“Montrose is a great bunch of citizens and everyone was engaged and respectful. You always worry about how anonymity brings the bad out of people. I’m really proud of the community, everybody behaved well and I really appreciate that.”
The work session only had two items on the agenda, making it an ideal “practice run” for the much longer regular meeting, in which public comment will be taken.
“I think there are pros and cons, and moving forward, it would be great to try and take the best of what worked and incorporate it into future meetings,” Bynum said. “I’m always trying to figure out how we can make the process better, and I think this gives us an opportunity to think about it, reflect and try to always look for ways to improve.”
The regular city council meeting will take place at 6 p.m. today, with the public tuning in virtually.