Boards weigh return to meeting in person

Seventh+District+Councilman+Mark+Harder+and+3rd+District+Councilman+Tim+Fitch+at+a+May+2019+meeting.

Photo by Erin Achenbach

Seventh District Councilman Mark Harder and 3rd District Councilman Tim Fitch at a May 2019 meeting.

By Erin Achenbach and Gloria Lloyd

With COVID-19 vaccinations becoming more and more available, the St. Louis County Council and most South County municipalities are eyeing a possible return in late spring or summer to in-person meetings.

The County Council could return meetings to the council chambers at the Government Center in Clayton as soon as June, when audio-visual system upgrades are slated to be finished that allow the council to continue hybrid meetings combining in-person and virtual attendance.

Council Chairwoman Rita Days, D-Bel Nor, said last week that she would have preferred to be back in person in April. Republicans have been pushing for in-person meetings since last summer, but the county Department of Public Health said at the time that in-person meetings would be too restrictive due to gathering limits. Sometimes hundreds of residents attend council meetings.

“We’re not dragging our feet on this, but if you can go to a baseball game and you can do these other activities, certainly, certainly, we can get our people to come into this chamber and be able to look at us face to face and we can conduct our business,” Days said at the April 20 council meeting. “I’m going to express my concern to make that happen as soon as we can.”

City administrators from Crestwood, Sunset Hills and Green Park are also cautiously eyeing what a return to pre-pandemic meetings could look like. Reorganization meetings for new aldermanic and mayoral terms are scheduled to happen virtually this month and in May.

“We will continue to monitor positive cases in the county and vaccine distribution to determine when it would be best to resume to in-person … meetings,” said Sunset Hills City Administrator Brittany Gillett, who took her position Sept. 28 and has never met in person with the city’s Board of Aldermen.

Most governmental bodies around St. Louis County began to meet virtually over Zoom and other videoconferencing platforms a year ago as regular daily life came to a halt due to the pandemic, after County Executive Sam Page issued stay-at-home orders to encourage social distancing and curb the spread of the coronavirus.

When restrictions and cases eased in June, Crestwood Ward 2 Alderman Justin Charboneau said he would like to get back to in-person meetings as soon as possible. But rising COVID cases and City Hall renovations meant that Crestwood committed to meeting virtually through the end of 2020. Crestwood’s renovations finished later than originally planned, with a few items not arriving for installation until February. But as cases rise even with the vaccine, the city will continue to meet virtually at least through May, with a target date of June or July for in person. The TIF Commission public hearing on the mall redevelopment is set for June 17, either in person or by Zoom.

“I’d say we’re playing things by ear, especially as vaccine rollout continues,” City Administrator Kris Simpson said.

Green Park City Administrator James Mello said that the city was not considering in-person “at this time” and would continue to follow county and state guidelines: “When those relax and stabilize we will transition back to in-person meetings.”

The Mehlville Fire Protection Board of Directors is the only local board to never go virtual even during the shutdown.

Some governmental boards, like the Mehlville School District, have been holding in-person meetings with limited attendance and mask requirements since the summer. Lindbergh Schools started livestreaming its meetings for the first time ever and continued that even as the board began meeting in person again by fall. The district went back to online-only for the public due to crowd limits the last few months, but then returned to allowing the public back in again at the April 9 meeting, while still offering livestreaming.

Virtual attendance in Crestwood has been high lately, but other cities have not had the same experience: Green Park, for example, typically never saw high attendance at in-person meetings and hasn’t seen a turnout for virtual either.

“I don’t think we’ve had any residents show up since we’ve gone online and it acts as a barrier,” Green Park Alderman Matthew Farwig told The Call. “We’ve talked about maybe going back in person soon. I’m excited about that and getting more residents involved.”

The health department will walk through the council Chambers with County Clerk Diann Valenti this week to go over what will be required as far as social distancing, masking and any physical changes if the Chanbers reopen in June. Health officials had estimated at least a $50,000 cost last summer to reopen meetings, with the total number of attendees limited to 50, including the seven-member council, staff and media, but there has not been a more recent assessment done.

“We have a responsibility to the public, to each other and I don’t mean each other just as council members, we have a responsibility to our staff, so let’s make sure that their perspective is included — and I would like for the health department to be part of the assessment,” said 5th District Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, last week.

When 7th District Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, had trouble connecting to the council meeting while attending a city meeting in Eureka, 3rd District Councilman Tim Fitch, R-Fenton, said, “This is precisely why we want to get back into the Chambers.”

But Clancy said that she and 4th District Councilwoman Shalonda Webb have been attending each council meeting from their county offices, and the other council members could do the same if they’re worried about their internet connections.

With the audio-visual upgrades to the Chambers, people who cannot or don’t want to come to meetings in person could be included alongside in-person speakers.

County committees and commissions, including the Planning Commission, have also been holding all their meetings virtually.

Acting Department of Planning Director Gail Choate asked planning panel members after the March 8 executive session what they thought of the virtual meetings and if they wanted to return to the Chambers when the council did.

“I like it — either way is fine with me,” said member William Ballard. “I think you guys have done a tremendous job with it.”

Anyone who has wanted to speak at public hearings has attended and asked questions virtually. Some hearings have had dozens of speakers.

“We have not gotten any negative feedback from residents or participation levels or anything like that,” Choate noted. “We’ve been happy with the results, so we were thinking that we might like to continue this process. I just wanted to get some feedback from you.”