XENIA — Xenia City Council members were able to conduct city business and maintain social distance at the same time last week.
During their regularly scheduled meeting — which was closed to the public but broadcast live on YouTube — the council spread out around its half-circle meeting area, making sure an empty seat was between each, thus creating the recommended six-foot barrier. City Manager Brent Merriman and Finance Director Ryan Duke sat at a folding table in front of where the public normally sits. Six feet apart, of course.
“In my time with the city (over 13 years) we’ve never encountered a scenario quite like this,” Merriman said in an email “The H1N1 was a concern that we ramped up to deal with, but the spread of that illness was not as rapid or as significant so it had relatively little impact on things like council meetings.”
Council and officials had the option of attending in person or calling in via teleconference. Six of seven council members attended. Council member Edgar Wallace was the only one absent from the meeting due to a work conflict. While it worked, it wasn’t an ideal situation, according to Merriman.
“Setting up for this meeting format quite was difficult,” he said. “To get the technology of the council chambers to work with the tech for those digitally participating was tough, but our IT director did a great job. It’s tough to engage people effectively when you’re not face-to-face. Also, we work very hard to be transparent, and I worry about the feelings of residents who are told they cannot attend a public meeting. We don’t want people to feel a that our local government is not open.”
Meeting without an audience wasn’t all that different for Mayor Sarah Mays.
“Because we often meet in work sessions, it didn’t feel all that strange to just sit and get work done at the council meeting,” she said in an email. “In fact, it was a bit refreshing to feel ‘normal.’ In a time where so much is different, where we find ourselves unsure of what’s next, or when we often feel helpless, I am thankful that we have the technology in place to still have a productive meeting. I will say that felt a little odd … to have so much space between us and not be able to sit in our normal setup.”
While many public bodies have delayed or cancelled meetings, Council President Wes Smith felt meeting was necessary and was the right thing to do.
“Xenia residents need to be informed, to know what is happening,” he said via email. “Even during this COVID-19 crisis, people need normalcy in their lives. I had been in contact with the city manager, Brent Merriman, and the law director, Donnette Fisher, the last two weeks on how we should proceed with council’s role in the business of the City of Xenia and how we should conduct business of the council. Could we delay the meeting? Should we proceed, and if so how can we be safe? Per our city charter, certain procedures still require authorization of council. With consideration for safety of citizens and in order to act on emergency measures, our solution was to adapt and conduct necessary business.”
Smith said council offered audience participation via email or phone, to keep the number of people to no more than 10. The agenda was condensed to items of emergency nature or second readings. Any public hearings will be rescheduled, Smith said, adding that with the passing of HB197 last week, council is able to hold future meetings via teleconference and that is the “probable” course of action.
Merriman said only essential items will be on the agenda for at least the next month to minimize the need for public hearings and reduce the overall time people are congregated.
Smith asked Xenia residents for patience and cooperation.
“Let’s keep things in perspective, this is global,” he said. “This is going to take time. As a city, we just ask our residents to comply with social distancing, avoid face-to-face contact and stay at home whenever possible. Now is the time to look after your neighbors, especially the most vulnerable. While empty store shelves, financial insecurity, and social isolation causes a feeling of helplessness, it may seem like things are spiraling out of our control. I would encourage everyone to keep the faith, say a prayer and have hope.”
Contact Scott Halasz at 937-502-4507.