Of the elected bodies representing the state’s four largest cities, the Mobile City Council is the only one to continuously meet remotely since the summer.
Since August, the council has been meeting via Zoom and livestreaming both the pre-conference and regular meetings through the city’s website and YouTube channel. The members have met remotely as virus cases have ebbed and flowed in the community and also while social distancing restrictions and a state mandate on face coverings have endured.
The body has taken advantage of an order by Gov. Kay Ivey made early on during the COVID-19 pandemic to allow members to conduct meetings remotely. The Mobile City Council has used that order to justify eight months of virtual meetings, while other cities have treated it differently.
Montgomery City Council has continued to meet in person, despite Ivey’s order, City Clerk Brenda Blalock said. The body has taken precautions while following social distancing guidelines, but continues to meet twice per month.
As part of the added layer of pandemic protection, Blalock said the council allows up to 20 people in its chambers at once, in addition to the members, staff and one reporter per media outlet. Montgomery City Hall is closed to the public. Those wishing to visit have to make an appointment, Blalock said.
The body participated in call-in meetings early on in the pandemic, but has since returned to in-person meetings.
Huntsville also continues to hold in-person public meetings, while following social distancing guidelines, a clerk in the council office confirmed.
Birmingham had held in-person meetings until January’s spike in COVID-19 cases sent them remote, Birmingham City Council President Pro-Tempore Wardine Alexander confirmed in a phone interview with Lagniappe.
Mobile’s City Council spent much of the early part of the pandemic meeting in person with varying degrees of success. Council President Levon Manzie had some speakers escorted out of the meeting, on occasion, for failing to follow the council’s face covering mandate. Some councilors complained of being unable to hear each other through face coverings.
Manzie defended the remote meetings in a phone interview Tuesday, saying the city would continue to follow the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Mobile County Health Department. `
Manzie added that he doesn’t believe the city has failed in its duty to conduct city business, even while meeting remotely and argued that the public is being served unprecedented access to the workings of city government through the weekly livestreams on Youtube and the council’s Facebook page.
“They can see the product from start to finish,” Manzie said. “That’s been one of the bonuses of us being able to meet remotely.”
Manzie also applauded the administration and council for weathering the pandemic without layoffs or furloughs to employees. He said the city has given raises to employees and has also built up an $80 million reserve fund. Manzie said he’s not sure the other cities mentioned have been able to accomplish that, although those accomplishments do not appear to be tied to whether the council met remotely or not.
On the downside, remote meetings are sometimes interrupted by a bad internet connection or the livestream video feed abruptly cutting out. Opponents argue the virtual meetings make it harder for the public to participate in meetings. Reggie Hill, who is one of the more prolific speakers and is often included on the council’s weekly agenda to discuss all manner of issues, said not everyone in the city has access to a computer or the internet and is, therefore, unable to attend a remote meeting.
“I would say virtual meetings hurt public participation,” he said. “There’s something about being there in the room, about being more direct.”
Councilors should be held to the same standard as first responders, who are considered essential personnel and come to work in person every day, Hill said.
“Personally, I feel like we force all these other frontline workers to come in — elected officials are frontline workers as well,” he said.
The council does set up a station in the atrium of Government Plaza on meeting days to allow the public to address councilors through Zoom. Those residents wishing to speak about a public hearing item can do so through this method, but the council has also changed its rules to require speakers to sign up the day before the meeting to speak on an agenda item.
There is also the issue of how to interpret Ivey’s order. The order allowing for members to meet remotely specified bodies could do so if they voted on COVID-19-related items or items that continued the minimum function of government. Mobile’s City Council has been conducting regular meetings with regular agendas since August.
Dennis Bailey, an attorney representing the Alabama Press Association, said the language in the order would suggest that bodies are not intended to continue on with regular business during virtual meetings.
“What does this language mean if it doesn’t limit discussions?” Bailey asked.
However, Manzie said he’s “confident” the council is “doing the right thing” in the way it handles and interprets the order.
Some councilors interviewed by Lagniappe all said they’d be willing to meet in person again if that was the will of the council.
“I don’t want to force my colleagues to do it if they may have a reason not to for personal health reasons,” Councilman Joel Daves said. “You have to be respectful of the people who you work with.”
Councilman Fred Richardson believes the council could meet in person and have enough space to be socially distant during meetings. The issue for the District 1 representative is what in-person meetings might mean for the community.
“Do we want to be encouraging people to come in person?” he asked. “It’s not so much the council; it’s the public. We’re so close. We just need to hold up a little longer.”
Councilman John Williams said he doesn’t see much of a difference between meeting in person and meeting remotely.
“I don’t think we’ve missed anything,” he said. “I don’t ever remember feeling I can say this because we’re remote, or I’m not going to say this because we’re remote.”
However, Williams acknowledged having an in-person meeting adds a “really important dynamic” that is lost virtually.
“I think we need that dynamic,” he said. “We need to see each other.”
Daves, Richardson, Manzie and Williams have all received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. Councilwoman Bess Rich and Councilwoman Gina Gregory did not respond to requests for comment on the issue. Lagniappe also emailed all members to confirm which ones had been vaccinated to this point, but had not received responses prior to deadline.
As for whether remote meetings hurt public participation, as Hill has said, Daves said he doesn’t know.
“I think anything I said would be speculation,” he said. “If we conducted in-person meetings would more people have shown up? I don’t know.”
Daves said it’s possible residents would have been kept away out of fear of the spread of the virus, as well.
Asked whether the business of the council’s remote meetings was in line with the governor’s order, Williams said councilors deem each item discussed to be appropriate as a way to cover themselves legally.