Ashland City Council holds hybrid meetings. The public can attend via Zoom or in person, but councilors must be present to vote. [Photo from Ashland city website]
Even with return of in-person meetings, several local cities have retained Zoom options for officials, the public
Some Rogue Valley city councils have retained electronic access to their meetings despite returning to in-person sessions with the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, resulting in hybrid meetings.
Councilors and citizens got used to computer-based Zoom meetings during the pandemic.
Ashland, Central Point, Eagle Point, Jacksonville and Phoenix all offer hybrid options, although rules of engagement vary by jurisdiction. Medford returned to in-person meetings this spring, without the hybrid approach, while Talent council sessions remain on Zoom, although hybrid meetings are under study.
The opportunity for residents and council officials to participate even if they cannot attend a session is important, city officials say.
“Most people prefer to come to the council meetings,” said Jacksonville Mayor Donna Bowen. The city has no policy on physical attendance, so some councilors have Zoomed in while out of town. “I’m really thankful for that so we can have a quorum.”
Ashland council rules require a councilor to be physically present at a meeting, precluding participation electronically. Mayor Julie Akins said she would like to see that changed and plans to bring it to the council for consideration at a later date after raising the issue at the Sept. 6 meeting.
In Phoenix, some council members have participated via Zoom while on vacation in Mexico, said City Recorder Bonnie Morgan.
“The council loves it. We’ve had situations where a councilor was not feeling well, but they could still attend via Zoom,” said Morgan. The return to in-person meetings seems to have drawn more participants since they resumed in December compared with Zoom-only sessions, said Morgan.
Both Ashland and Phoenix can project images of Zoom participants onto screens in the council meeting rooms. In Jacksonville, the council is using a voice-only feature and not showing images of either councilors or public participants, said Bowen.
Zoom participation has varied, with only a few speakers at the latest meeting, but many more when there is a topic of greater interest, said Ashland City Recorder Melissa Huhtala. Council resumed in-person sessions with the Zoom option in May.
Ashland requires citizens to sign up in advance if they want to address the council via Zoom. In-person participants can sign up at the meeting to speak on both agenda and nonagenda items.
“It’s great to have the citizens come in from their homes, the elderly who can’t make it or people out of town who want to speak on a topic,” said Huhtala.
“I’m happy we can have the hybrid system. I think Zoom only is difficult. It’s hard to arrange (a meeting) around Zoom only. There is something to be said for seeing people in person,” said Akins. The public, city staff and consultants can all participate via Zoom, and Akins would like to see the same options available to city councilors.
Council members have jobs, maybe they can’t get a baby sitter or perhaps they have to be caregivers, but still might be able to participate in council business via Zoom, Akins said.
Participation by residents is about the same with the hybrid offerings as it was during Zoom-only sessions, said Bowen. On Zoom people can speak either on specific agenda items or during the open public comment by raising the hand icon available through Zoom. Phoenix uses the same approach for public participation.
Central Point residents need to request a Zoom link from the city recorder prior to 4 p.m. the day of the meeting. Those wishing to speak also need to notify the recorder by 4 p.m. or else attend in person.
Eagle Point meetings can be attended in person or are available via Zoom by registering in advance. A link is shown on the meeting agenda.
In Gold Hill, council sessions are on YouTube and can be attended in person.
In Rogue River, a telephone link for audio is available for those who don’t want to attend.
Talent City Council discussed the return to in-person meetings with a hybrid option at its Wednesday meeting. City Manager Jordan Rooklyn reported that a camera needed to show Zoom participants on a screen in Town Hall would not be available until January due to supply chain issues. Up to $15,000 will be needed to accommodate a hybrid option.
Councilors discussed proposed rules for hybrid meetings which Rooklyn had drafted. She will take their input and refine them further before coming back to council. Language on expectations of councilor attendance in person was discussed.
“Before COVID, if we were traveling, we could (participate) via phone,” said Councilor Eleanor Ponomareff. She said it would be beneficial to have the participation if councilors need to travel due to jobs or if they had health concerns.
Councilors Ana Byers and Jason Clark both said during the meeting that they get citizen comments asking for a return to in-person sessions.
“I feel some people feel excluded by Zoom,” said Clark. “People say we need to get back in person. Not everyone wants to engage via Zoom.”
Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at firstname.lastname@example.org.