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Missoula City Council turns to tech as government pushes forward during pandemic

Posted at 2:36 PM, Apr 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-08 16:36:17-04

MISSOULA — Local governments over the past few weeks have scrambled for novel ways to conduct business, seeking out opinions from the Montana Attorney General while tapping new technology as a substitute for public gatherings.

On Monday, the Missoula City Council will give that technology a try when it holds its first meeting in several weeks – electronically. The agenda will be light, offering a chance to fine tune what could be standard practice as the COVID-19 pandemic plays on.

“We are intending to meet next Monday, and we’re working our way through Zoom technology to work that out,” said Missoula Mayor John Engen. “Our Monday meeting so far is pretty light, so we’ll take a test run with this live.”

Over the past few weeks, local governments have sought ways to practice social distancing while continuing to conduct business. Missoula County has stopped holding public meetings weeks ago, opting instead for dial-in conference calls with commissioners and members of the public over the phone.

As the pandemic spread back in March, the Missoula City Council went forward with its regular Monday night meeting at City Hall, though it barely had a quorum. Seats in City Council chambers were few and those available were spaced widely around the room.

Council members had mixed feelings about the in-person format, and some chose not to attend for health reasons.

“My wife is an extremely healthy and well-controlled diabetic, but at the same time, the guidance is clear with people with underlying health issues,” said council president Bryan von Lossberg. “We talked about that a lot and I decided I couldn’t be at that meeting physically and meet what I viewed as my safety obligations to my family.”

Others had similar concerns and last week’s council meeting was canceled due to the pandemic and CDC guidelines on public gatherings. But other issues also prompted the decision to cancel the meeting, including the laws that regulate open government and public access in Montana.

In an effort to address public health and state law, the city has turned to Zoom as a way to conduct business. City staff has tuned the technology and will put it to work next week when the council gathers on Monday night, and again on Wednesday for committee meetings.

“It’ll be a Zoon meeting, and I believe the clerk’s office has also piloted another system to work alongside it for questions from the public,” said von Lossberg. “There will be other technologies employed. We’re committed to getting this right. It’s important the government functions and we get business done.”

The City Council last month granted the mayor wider powers to authorize contracts and agreements above the traditional $25,000 cap. The decision was the first step to expedite city business and adhere to public-safety guidelines.

Gov. Steve Bullock also has temporarily suspended certain statutory deadlines around city and county business, such as decisions on land use and subdivisions. But such decisions must still be made, pandemic or not, and technology could help bridge the gap.

“We have some planning matters coming up,” said Engen. “Land use can involve a cast of thousands, and we want to make sure people have an ability to be heard. But being heard may be different these days. It may be something that happens in writing or telephonically.”

Local governments across the country have sought to resolve the issue as well. Some towns in Massachusetts have reworked their spring schedules, hoping the pandemic will pass, while others have turned to electronic meetings.

Several Missoula City Council members reached out to the Montana League of Cities and Towns, along with Attorney General Tim Fox, seeking guidance on the fine line between open meetings and public safety amid the pandemic.

City staff also has worked to fire up the technology and get local government back on schedule.

“We’ll have to get into a rhythm of prioritizing and being efficient,” said von Lossberg. “The Attorney General was clear and it makes sense that if there are decisions that don’t require urgent consideration that we could delay, then we should do that. But there’s also a lot of normal course of businesses that needs to get done.”