By Dedra Cordle
The way public meetings will be held in the current era of COVID-19 is sowing confusion in the village of Urbancrest.
At its meeting on Dec. 8, council approved a resolution that would allow the body to conduct its future legislative sessions in a virtual format in order to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus. But officials say the wires of communication were crossed during the days and weeks that followed which has put that decision into question.
According to Mayor Joseph Barnes Sr., who was not present for the meeting in December due to a scheduling conflict, the council has not yet submitted the legislation to the administration. He also said that council has not submitted the documents that would give him or the fiscal officer the authority to execute a contract with the web hosting service Cisco Webex.
“To this day, the administration has not received any correspondence from the council about this,” Barnes said.
It is a claim that councilwoman Deborah Larkins-Jackson refuted.
“The state legislature gave (governing bodies) the authority to go into a virtual format and that is what we approved last month,” she said.
She went on to add that she expected the Jan. 12 meeting to be held via that platform.
“I was shocked that it wasn’t,” she said.
Barnes said that due to the lack of clarity regarding the legislative action, he posted that it would be held in-person as it has been since the summer.
“We have been following all the safety guidelines set forth by our governor, our county and state boards of health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” he said.
He also added that safety measures have been put in place to mitigate the spread, such as temperature checks, mask mandates, reducing capacity and frequent sanitization of the municipal premises.
“I do think we have done the best that we can to keep the council, our administration and the public who attend the meetings as safe as we can.”
When the Jan. 12 meeting took place, however, five of the six council members sent notification that they would not be in attendance – several cited health concerns as the reason.
As the sole member of council in attendance, Nikky Ziglar-Zimmerman called the meeting due to the lack of a quorum. Afterwards, residents who were in attendance, as well as several businessmen who were there to discuss the dedication of a private roadway, said they were confused and surprised by the lack of members at the meeting.
The Messenger reached out to the council members who were not in attendance seeking clarification of the majority absence. Those who responded to an email said it was not planned action.
“This was an individual action and it was not a part of a larger demonstration,” said Larkins-Jackson.
Councilwoman Alicia Wiggins, who stated at the December meeting that she felt these public meetings were the “definition” of a health hazard, said she had nothing to add but this: “My concern is that we are this far into a pandemic and we’re still holding in-person meetings when there are alternative solutions readily available.”
The email The Messenger sent to the council members also included questions as to whether they plan to attend future in-person meetings: Larkins-Jackson said she planned to attend the meeting on Feb. 9 and was mulling a special meeting request; Wiggins did not directly answer, and the remainder of the council did not send in their response before press time.
Barnes said he realizes the council has health concerns, but he reiterated that they are following all state and federal safety guidelines. He said he didn’t want his actions to make it seem like he was pushing aside their health concerns.
“I am not against having meetings in a virtual setting,” he said, “but there are some issues that were not addressed at that (December) meeting.”
For instance, he said going into the virtual format would have a negative impact on the residents.
“I would say 60 to 70 percent of our residents do not have easy access to the Internet,” he said. “It would make it impossible for them to ask questions of their elected officials.”
He also questioned the timing of the decision.
“Our local school districts are reopening right now,” he said. “If we can ask our children to go sit in a classroom for six or seven hours, we too can sit in a building for an hour or two to discuss the business of this village.”
He added that, if the members of council feel unsafe at the municipal hall, they can open the Quinichette Pavilion which would provide more space for physical distancing.
When asked if that move would be agreeable until the virtual meeting versus in-person meeting question is cleared up, Larkins-Jackson said she was unsure.
“It is something to be considered but there are some members of council who have health issues and just do not feel safe.”
She said she felt frustrated by the lack of communication between the council and the administration and wondered what it would take to go virtual.
“Is the pandemic going to have to sweep through the village before we can go virtual? Why wait until a crisis happens?”
The council and the administration said if they can agree on something it is this: this confusion needs to be clarified so they “can get back to doing the business of the village.”
“We were all elected to do a job and we cannot do that job if no one comes to a meeting,” said Barnes.