Local government goes virtual during pandemic

a photo of a man on a computer screen
Grant County Commissioner Bill LaValley peers out of a virtual sunset during a Zoom meeting last week.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The coronavirus pandemic, and efforts to slow its spread, has shuttered many government buildings. But cities and counties need to continue providing essential services, so many local governments are moving to remote, virtual meetings.

For some, that’s meant putting meetings online for the first time. Others, like the city of Moorhead, have long broadcast council meetings on local public access television and on a live stream, but remote meetings create new challenges communicating and ensuring public access.

“Overall, with a few minor things, I think it’s worked pretty well and everyone’s adjusting accordingly,” said Moorhead Mayor Johnathan Judd. “We do want to be cognizant of the fact that not everybody has internet access, and how we can be as accommodating as possible.”

At a meeting last month, City Council members struggled to be heard as they tried to chime in from remote locations.

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“[It] might take a little bit for us to get used to this as we move forward, but we will get it down as it becomes part of our new normal,” said Judd, who was the lone elected official in the council chambers for the meeting.

a photo of a Facebook live event
The Ely City Council used the video meeting software Zoom to meet on April 7, and streamed the video of that meeting on Facebook for public watching. The meeting was also broadcast on the local cable access television channel.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The city is putting out a phone number residents can call to provide public comment during meetings. They can also email the city with comments that are read into the record over the call.

The city has put some public board and commission meetings on hold temporarily, said Judd, but essential meetings will continue to be held with remote access.

Like many urban areas across the state, the city of Moorhead has fast, reliable internet service.

But that’s not consistently the case across rural Minnesota.

Ely Mayor Chuck Novak experienced that inconsistency last week when he tried to call a remote City Council meeting to order — and all that came through was a garbled, indecipherable voice.

As it turned out: The Ely city hall Wi-Fi was overloaded, with multiple people in different offices all joining the Zoom meeting.

That problem was solved when a city staff member plugged the mayor in to a wired connection and the council meeting continued on a Zoom call — which was, in turn, streamed on Facebook and on the local public access television channel.

Minnesota law allows remote meetings but normally requires one elected official, the chief legal counsel or chief administrator to be in the meeting room. But the law stipulates that during a health pandemic, public meetings can be held with all participants in remote locations.

A few local governments are still meeting in person, others have some elected officials in the meeting room with others on the phone — but many, like Ely, have gone completely virtual.

"So we're all spread all over town, but we're able to get in one meeting and accomplish the city's business, which we have to do,” Novak said afterward.

a public announcement for a county board meeting
Clay County posted this notice on April 7 to help provide ways for the public to join county board meetings when county buildings are closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

But Novak had a less successful experience during a recent video meeting with other Iron Range mayors. The meeting was going along smoothly, with each mayor presenting issues.

"Before they got to my agenda items, we lost internet up here, and there was no getting back on at all at that point," said Novak. “It was frustrating, disappointing.”

Reliable broadband access has long been inconsistent in parts of rural Minnesota — and the internet demands of the pandemic are highlighting the system’s shortcomings.

"There are parts of the state that don't have great broadband access, which can be a barrier, certainly, to virtual video meetings,” said Julie Ring, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Counties. “We have county board members that don’t have internet access at their homes. And we certainly have county staff that don’t have good internet access at their homes.”

In those counties, it also might be difficult for citizens to participate in virtual meetings.

Some counties and cities are using a simple telephone conference call for remote access by elected officials and citizens.

“They’re essentially just hoping everybody is on their best behavior and only talk when it’s time for the public to address the council,” said Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities executive director Bradley Peterson.

“Everybody’s trying to figure out how to operate in this new world, how long it’s going to last — and certainly local governments are no different.”

While there have been reports elsewhere of “Zoombombing,” in which meetings are interrupted, Peterson and Ring said they’re not aware of any untoward interruptions of city or county meetings in Minnesota. Some local governments are buying online meeting software, so meetings can be password-protected and governments have some control over who joins.

Still, in meetings large and small across the state, there are often long pauses and awkward moments, as participants get used to the new system, struggle to unmute their microphones, or lose connections altogether. Meetings also often take longer than before, because instead of quickly passing motions, every decision requires a roll call vote to ensure the meetings comply with Minnesota open meeting laws.

a man in a hat and sunglasses sits in front of a photo of a golf course
Grant County Auditor Chad Van Santen tries to lighten the mood of a county board meeting by appearing at a virtual meeting in golf attire on April 7.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Remote meetings have been working fairly well so far in west-central Minnesota’s Grant County, said county board chair Doyle Sperr. “It’s just a little more cumbersome than being there in person,” Sperr said. “I think people are more comfortable being there in person.”

The county’s emergency manager, Tina Lindquist, who’s leading the county response to COVID-19, said she often has as many as a half-dozen video or teleconference calls each day. They can sometimes be frustrating — not long ago she tried unsuccessfully to be heard for several minutes during a county board call — but she’s not complaining.

"Business as we know it might change, and we just have to realize that sometimes change is OK,” she said. “We have to be flexible and fluid and we have to really be grateful we have the jobs we have to serve the public."

Despite the technical challenges and the sometimes sobering discussions about COVID-19 and budgets, there are moments of humor. During a recent meeting on Zoom, Grant County Auditor Chad Van Santen used a virtual background of a golf course behind him, and had golf clubs next to his desk.

He thinks it’s important county officials stay focused on the challenging job of delivering essential services to residents, while also maintaining perspective.

“My grandfather and father, the generations that came before us, they went through a lot. And they don’t complain about things, so we probably shouldn’t complain, either,” said Van Santen. “And you know what, sometimes you’ve just got to be kind to your neighbors and just care about other people.”

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Health officials for weeks have been increasingly raising the alarm over the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States. The disease is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

Government and medical leaders are urging people to wash their hands frequently and well, refrain from touching their faces, cover their coughs, disinfect surfaces and avoid large crowds, all in an effort to curb the virus’ rapid spread.

The state of Minnesota has temporarily closed schools, while administrators work to determine next steps, and is requiring a temporary closure of all in-person dining at restaurants, bars and coffee shops, as well as theaters, gyms, yoga studios and other spaces in which people congregate in close proximity.