Coronavirus makes public meetings difficult to hold

Coronavirus makes public meetings difficult to hold

CITY HALL – Guidelines to keep people safe during the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis may clash with state law to make it hard for the Board of Aldermen to get anything done.

The board held its last meeting before the spring break on March 13, before the situation got bad. The board is set to hold its last meeting of the 2019-2020 session on April 20 – a day before it’s scheduled to hold its first meeting of the 2020-2021 session.

If the crisis doesn’t improve by then, the city would still be under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Guidelines limiting gatherings to 10 people. The Board of Aldermen has 29 members, including President Lewis Reed.

“Our office has been working with the clerk of the board and legal counsel to see how we will proceed,” said Mary Goodman, Reed’s legislative director.

It’s possible to hold a virtual meeting, Goodman said.

“The problem with doing the virtual meeting is, not everybody has access to that,” she explained. 

The Missouri Attorney General has ruled that legislative bodies can have virtual meetings, but they can’t have votes on critical items, Goodman said.

“Probably 75 percent of the things we pass are critical items,” she said.

It would be possible for all aldermen to safely spread out in the Board of Aldermen’s chambers, but the CDC guidelines wouldn’t allow it, Goodman said.

Reed was scheduled to hold a virtual meeting about the subject Friday afternoon with leaders of 65 municipalities. The meeting was scheduled by the National League of Cities. 

Meanwhile, numerous smaller bodies continue to have meetings, while others are not. Postings on the city’s website on Friday showed that scheduled meetings of the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority and the Preservation Board were canceled, while the Plumbing Board and the Board of Public Service hadn’t canceled their meetings. 

Obviously, the health and safety of city employees, board members, the media, and the public are our highest priority,” Jacob Long, Mayor Lyda Krewson’s director of communications, said in an email on Friday.

“If a meeting can be canceled or postponed, that’s an option,” Long wrote. If it must be held, “We are taking extra precautions like moving to larger rooms, practicing social distancing, and limiting the number of people who can attend to comply with the newest restrictions under our public health emergency.”

One example of this was Wednesday’s meeting of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment. The meeting of that board, which consists of the mayor, the comptroller and the Board of Aldermen’s president, was moved from a conference room in the mayor’s office to Room 208, a large meeting room on the second floor of City Hall.

Those attending the meeting sat apart from one another.

“Members of the public can come, submit written questions and receive answers. They can also stream some meetings live on STLTV YouTube page,” Long wrote.

“The Missouri Attorney General’s Office offered new guidance this week about conducting public businesses in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak,” Long said. “We are working to ensure we are in compliance with those guidelines, while recognizing these are unprecedented times and special precautions must be taken.”

Meredith Pierce, a spokeswoman for the St. Louis Public Schools, said the district’s board did a telephone conference when it decided to close schools. As for the next meeting, on April 14, she said, “We wouldn’t make decisions on that unless we know what our circumstances are at that time.”

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