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Virtual gatherings the new norm in local government

Viewers of the Charles County Government cable TV channel found the following message on their screens at about 3:10 p.m. Friday.

"The meeting you are about to view will appear very different from regular meetings. Charles County Government is committed to bringing meetings to the public and, while every reasonable effort has and will be made to do so, technical issues may occur. Please be patient and understanding, as these changes have impacted us all."

It's a message they will have to get used to.

With all government buildings in the county closed to the public as of Monday afternoon, the machinery of government has threatened to slow to a crawl with the prospect of hundreds of meetings at the state, county and civic level not taking place.

However, technology has opened up ways for officials to communicate in real-time with the public even in situations where mass gathering is discouraged. Thursday afternoon, in conjunction with the county's decision to cancel all non-essential board meetings until further notice, Charles County moved all emergency board meetings in the immediate future to a virtual format, "in accordance with the Maryland Municipal Attorneys Association guidelines for virtual meetings."

Friday's meeting of the Board of License Commissioners - a.k.a., the Liquor Board - was the first of what will likely be many such "virtual meetings" to come, with the help of the videoconferencing platform Microsoft Teams. The county used it as a test run to determine whether or not they will use the platform for future public meetings.

It wasn't a perfect debut — the broadcast started 12 minutes behind schedule, and the audio quality for some of the participants was worse than for others. At certain points during the stream, member William Winters' audio feed went quiet in mid-speech, possibly due to his head straying too far from the microphone. However, given the quick turnaround time required to put the meeting together, it could have gone far worse.

"At this point, it is our plan to continue using MS Teams for virtual meetings unless we run into issues that it can’t address," said Jennifer Harris, the county's Chief of Media Services. "If there is functionality we need that MS Teams does not provide, we will research other products to either replace or supplement it."

The Charles County Board of Commissioners first floated the idea at last Tuesday's regularly-scheduled board meeting — a discussion that took on added importance after Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced the first coronavirus-related death in the state on Thursday afternoon, which led to even more strict social measures to combat the spread.

Maryland's Open Meetings Act — which appears in Title 3 of the General Provisions Article of the Maryland Code — requires that all public business must "be conducted openly and publicly," and that "the public be provided with adequate notice of the time and location of meetings of public bodies, which shall be held in places reasonably accessible to individuals who would like to attend these meetings."

This presents a problem when circumstances make it necessary for the public to avoid meeting in the same place altogether.

"Public hearings and town hall meetings provide the opportunity for public input; and all of these meetings in the next two weeks have been cancelled. Commissioner meetings do not have the opportunity for public comments, just public viewing or listening," said county spokesperson Erin Pomrenke. "We will be evaluating a solution that will offer these options to the public."

The Open Meetings Act does leave open the possibility of meeting via conference call, with the public being given an opportunity to participate through a call-in number. County Attorney Wes Adams hinted at this possibility at last Tuesday's meeting.

"I would recommend if we did it through social media or internet and with the opportunity to call in and hear and listen to the proceedings, that creates as much access publicly that we would be able to do in a state of emergency, and I think that would be plenty sufficient and pass legal muster," Adams said.

Any virtual meetings of Charles County government will still be broadcast live on the CCGTV website and cable television channel as usual.

"We cannot speculate how long this could last," said Pomrenke. "We will continue to evaluate whether virtual meetings are essential as this situation evolves."

Meanwhile, the town of La Plata ran two conference calls this past week to test the viability of the virtual format for future meetings. 

"The test went well and we will use this option for meetings moving forward until the state of emergency and various executive orders have expired," said town clerk Danielle Mandley.

Though La Plata plans to use the GoToMeeting web platform to conduct future meetings, citizens can call in to participate using their cell or landline phones.

The town of Indian Head will also move forward with teleconferencing for future town meetings via the GoToMeeting platform, starting with Wednesday's town council work session. All in-person town hall meetings have been cancelled until further notice.

Twitter: @WillPittsIndy

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