Zoom – Walton County commission to continue Zoom access to meetings
SANTA ROSA BEACH — After suspending access to government meetings via the Zoom online teleconferencing tool earlier this month, the Walton County Board of County Commissioners is taking steps to bring back that tool to the public, but under tighter control.
The commission established Zoom attendance at public meetings as an option a little more than a year ago as part of its response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Allowing remote attendance and participation in public meetings was then seen as a way to provide for social distancing and other public health protocols aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
But in the ensuing months, it also became a popular convenience among many residents and other interested parties.
Previously:Goodbye, Zoom calls: Walton County halts remote access to public meetings
But earlier this month in the wake of an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis invalidating any previous local emergency associated with coronavirus concerns, county administrators and commission Chairman Trey Nick, without any broader commission input, halted Zoom access to public meetings. The move was made because the county had no other policy in place allowing remote access, County Administrator Larry Jones said at a subsequent commission meeting.
At that July 13 meeting, though, commissioners directed their staff to come up with a policy proposal for continuing Zoom access.
The public participation aspects of the new policy were approved Tuesday, even though the county must make some changes to its technological infrastructure before that part of the policy can be fully implemented, according to Louis Svehla, the county’s public information manager. In the interim, Svehla said the county will conduct Zoom-accessible meetings as it did during the pandemic.
As far as the commission itself, commissioners on Tuesday asked staff members to continue working on regulations regarding their remote participation at meetings. Among the questions lingering was how remote participation by a commissioner would be approved; the need for the remotely participating commissioner to be able to be seen by his fellow commissioners; and whether remote participation might require the commissioners to hold a roll-call vote on every issue.
Tuesday’s vote on the new policy was unanimous, with Commissioner Tony Anderson not in attendance due to illness.
As far as the public is concerned, the new policy will require anyone wanting to participate via Zoom, or whatever other teleconferencing tool the county might adopt, to pre-register via the county’s website at least 24 hours prior to the meeting in which they want to participate.
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At pre-registration, applicants will be required to state which agenda item or items they want to speak on, with participation limited to five items.
During pre-registration, applicants will be give a code that will provide access to the meeting, and they must log in to the meeting at least 15 minutes prior to the beginning of the portion of the meeting in which their comment will be offered, whether for the consent agenda, the regular agenda or the public hearing portion.
And in the event of a technological mishap compromising remote access during a meeting, people participating remotely would not have any recourse, having assumed the risk of not showing up in person, commissioners learned Tuesday.
In a major departure from the commission’s previous use of Zoom, participants must appear on video, and cannot use the audio-only telephone access option offered with the Zoom tool.
Additionally, the public participation aspect of the teleconferencing access policy does not address remote participation in quasi-judicial matters such as zoning and land-use issues, for which people offering public comment must be sworn in — just as for a legal proceeding — since those comments can be considered as testimony rather than simple comment.
“I think it sets us up for a lot of trouble,” interim county counsel Clay Adkinson told commissioners Tuesday of having someone offer sworn testimony without appearing in person.
While they may have approved the public participation portion of the new policy, commissioners indicated that remote participation in meetings takes something away from in-person proceedings that might otherwise influence commission decisions.
For commissioners, said Commissioner Mike Barker, there is “a difference in voting if you’re sitting in your living room.” In person, he said, commissioners are looking directly at constituents and “… can see emotions … can see reactions.”