NORTH OGDEN — Attending public meetings will become a much more solitary undertaking in some locales.
North Ogden, among other communities, will forego its regular city council meetings at city hall, which sometimes draw a packed house. Instead, the gatherings — at least for now — will be held electronically, with the public able to access them and participate only via video on platforms like YouTube and Zoom, a video conferencing program.
The cities of Ogden, South Ogden and Roy are planning similar moves — permitting attendance and participation at their public meetings only remotely, by way of electronic feeds. The change is meant to be temporary, aimed at keeping large groups of people from gathering, thus preventing the spread of coronavirus as the threat of the illness continues.
“I think we’re doing the best we can under the circumstances,” said Jon Call, the city attorney for North Ogden. The new format is to be implemented for the next North Ogden City Council meeting on April 7 and may launch as early as April 1, if the North Ogden Planning Commission ends up meeting that day.
Roy Mayor Bob Dandoy said Roy, too, is planning a similar change starting with the next city council meeting on April 21. Although details have yet to be sorted, it is also as a safety precaution against the spread of COVID-19.
“We just don’t want to create a big group of people,” Dandoy said. Nevertheless, he said he wants to make sure the public has a way to offer input electronically, and officials are working on that.
The impact of coronavirus is changing the way cities hold their public meetings and the way the general public can take part and sound off. Though North Ogden, South Ogden, Roy and other cities had already provided live video of city council meetings via YouTube, Facebook and other platforms, they had also let the public watch proceedings in person, giving participants leeway to offer input.
Stefanie Casey, who regularly attends North Ogden City Council meetings to offer input on an array of issues, understands the decision to go to a video-only meeting format. Still, she worries some important issues might get lost in the shuffle or might not make the public’s radar screen. She’s also leery of holding public hearings on hot-button issues via a video-only format.
“You could too easily miss something,” she said.
Whatever the case, Susan Wood, director of communications for the Utah League of Cities and Towns, said the shift is a function of public safety.
“The primary concern is the health and safety of our residents and second is the way we conduct business,” she said. “It’s a new day and we’re all experiencing challenges we’ve never faced before.”
Weber County commissioners, meantime, are bucking the trend toward video-only meetings. The public will be able to attend the body’s next meeting on March 31, at the usual location at the Weber Center in Ogden but starting at 4 p.m., later than usual.
However, Commissioner Gage Froerer said a health official may screen those who attend, taking temperatures to weed out those with fevers, a symptom of coronavirus. And those on hand may be asked to spread out to assure sufficient spacing, also to guard against coronavirus’ spread.
At any rate, nothing likely to garner a crowd will be on the agenda and some meetings only draw 10 to 12 people. What’s more, Froerer emphasized that county commission meetings are transmitted via YouTube and Facebook, so the public can watch proceedings without being physically present.
Call, the North Ogden city attorney, said some of the leaders taking part in the next city council meeting will probably participate from their homes, connecting via video. Thus, the feed to the public will likely be a collection of separate feeds of the individual participants. Staffers will connect via their own feeds as needed.
North Ogden City Council meetings typically allow public comment and staff will likely recommend continuing with that, though details are still being sorted. The Zoom program allows meeting administrators to unmute participants who seek recognition so they can address the meeting. Typed comments and questions may also be collected from those watching via Zoom or YouTube.
“It will be somewhat clunky,” at least at first, Call said. “I don’t know a way to say it other than that.”
No public hearings are planned for the April 7 meeting, but Call said the video-only format can be used for such gatherings. “It won’t flow as easily as a normal meeting does, but it will still give (the public) a chance to make a comment in a meaningful way,” he said.
Links to the live feeds of the North Ogden meetings will likely be included in the online meeting agendas and also distributed via social media.
An executive order signed last week by Gov. Gary Herbert gives cities and locales across Utah leeway to hold video-only meetings, at least temporarily while the coronavirus threat remains. The aim is to prevent large gatherings and slow its spread.