Monroe County poised for return to in-person government meetings with option for remote participation

Rank-and-file members of the public will be able to participate remotely in future county board meetings, even after pandemic protocols are lifted, and when commissioners start holding in-person meetings.

That was a key takeaway from Wednesday’s Monroe County commissioners meeting.

The current emergency health order from Indiana governor Eric Holcomb, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, is set to expire at the end of May. Local county officials are assuming the order won’t be renewed this time around, as it has been several times before.

The emergency order provided the legal basis for governing bodies, like the Monroe County board of commissioners, to meet with remote participation of members, using video conferencing options like Zoom.

That broad basis for remote participation will end when the governor’s order expires. All other things being equal, that would mean a return to the legal requirements of public meetings in pre-pandemic times, which include an in-person requirement for members of public bodies.

But under a state statute enacted by the state legislature during this year’s session, the members of a governing body can, in a more limited way, still participate in meetings from a distance, by using electronic platforms. [HEA 1437]

For remote electronic participation in meetings, the statute requires that governing bodies adopt a written policy “establishing the procedures that apply to a member’s participation in a meeting by an electronic means of communication.”

That’s what the three-member board of commissioners did on Wednesday morning. The ordinance approved by the commissioners says:

All members of the public shall be admitted to commissioners’ meetings if they wish to participate electronically and shall be able to view or listen and participate in the meeting under the regular rules allowed for public participation.

The new state statute has a provision that says that if the public access to a meeting through remote electronic participation is cut off due to a “technological failure,” that does not affect the validity of decisions made at the meeting.

Under the ordinance approved on Wednesday morning, county staff members can participate electronically in all meetings of county governing bodies, including those where remote participation for members is not an option—unless it’s determined that their physical presence is needed.

Examples named in the statute for meetings where remote participation is not an option include those occasions when decisions are made about: adopting a budget; making a reduction in personnel; initiating a referendum; establishing or increasing a fee; or establishing or increasing a penalty.

The new state statute also requires that for any meeting, at least half of the members of a governing body attend in person.

Weighing in during public comment on Wednesday, after being recognized to speak when she used the “raise hand” Zoom feature, was Tamby Wikle-Cassady. She encouraged commissioners to recognize the value of in-person participation. Being able to see the expressions of others in attendance makes it possible to “read the room,” she said.

Wikle-Cassady also noted that in some versions of Zoom, the other participants in the room are not visible at all, not even in a list of participants.

The screen location of specific features of Zoom, like how to unmute a microphone, vary from device to device, she pointed out. Wikle-Cassady suggested that in the few minutes before a meeting starts, the IT staff might use the time to give quick tutorials and practice sessions for the public in attendance.

For the three commissioners, the statutory requirement that at least half of members be physically present at a meeting means only one of them, for any given meeting, would be able to participate in remotely, on an electronic platform.

It would not be possible for one commissioner to adopt a role of designated electronic attendee, and participate only by remote electronic means. That’s because the new statute says that, with a handful of exceptions, a member of the governing body “may not attend more than 50 percent of the governing body’s meetings in a calendar year by means of electronic communication.

Among the exceptions that apply to the clause covering 50 percent of meetings are when a member’s electronic participation is due to: military service; illness or other medical condition; death of a relative; or an emergency involving actual or threatened injury to persons or property.

At Wednesday’s meeting, commissioner Lee Jones said, “I have enough problems with my connection, so that I’ll only be tempted to participate electronically, if there’s some really good reason for it.”

President of the board of commissioners Julie Thomas encouraged members of the public to continue to use the option to participate in meetings by using Zoom, if they feel comfortable doing that.

Thomas said: “Until this pandemic is really under control, it’s just better to join electronically, if you have that option. If it’s comfortable for you, if you have the connectivity, if that works for you, if it makes you comfortable, then that’s great.”

For a few months now, the county’s IT staff have been preparing for hybrid meetings where people can participate in person or on an electronic platform. Those preparations include renovations to the Nat Hill Meeting Room in the county courthouse, where the commissioners meet.

Assuming the governor does not renew the emergency order, the first in-person meeting for the commissioners will fall on June 2.

Under the new statute, other public bodies of the county, like the plan commission, will need to adopt their own written policies on electronic participation.

Until they do, the ordinance adopted by the county commissioners gives a kind of “blanket authority” to governing bodies in the county to go ahead and meet in hybrid fashion, until they can meet and adopt their own written policy, county attorney Margie Rice said on Wednesday.