SCHENECTADY — Six months into the coronavirus pandemic, the city is taking baby steps to resume in-person City Council meetings.
“We gotta get it done,” said Councilman Ed Kosiur. “There’s no excuse for it.”
Mayor Gary McCarthy told lawmakers to assemble a plan detailing social distancing and sanitation protocols.
After that, staffers will begin to prep the City Council chambers in City Hall for modifications.
“If you say you want to hold meetings, we’ll provide the proper protective equipment,” said Mayor Gary McCarthy.
Visitation to City Hall remains limited to appointment only.
The shift comes after pressure from the city’s neighborhood associations, which co-signed onto a letter on Aug. 8 calling on City Council President John Mootooveren to restore “full public access” to meetings to allow for direct citizen participation.
Other public bodies have already resumed meetings, including the Schenectady County Legislature, which uses a hybrid model of some officials using teleconferencing software while legislators meet in the chambers with plexiglass dividers.
Mootooveren said he sent plans to McCarthy earlier this week.
“I’m hoping we can move forward, work on that and put these things in place to resume in-person meetings as soon as we can,” Mootooveren said on Friday.
McCarthy appeared to express some concerns about letting the public in.
“You can’t guarantee 100 percent sanitization when people are moving in and out of a facility,” he said.
Kosiur said lawmakers will carefully study how many people should be allowed in the chamber and how to regulate people waiting to deliver comments.
Any system would involve temperature checks, which are currently being conducted for all visitors to City Hall.
A primary catalyst for restoring the in-person meetings are upcoming budget talks and the public hearing, which is set for Oct. 13.
“With the upcoming budget we’re going to be presenting, we certainly need public comments heard,” Kosiur said.
The annual budget process will likely be more animated this year as the city stares down a shortfall of at least $12 million.
Mootooveren stopped short of setting a definite reopening date, citing the complexity of preparations and the need to ensure public and lawmaker safety.
The biweekly City Council meetings traditionally attract a robust public comment period, with city residents weighing in on a variety of subjects, from legislative business to quality-of-life issues like potholes, loud music and overgrown grass.
Since meetings went online in March the city has accepted public comment only via email.
Submitted comments are acknowledged during the meeting, but not read aloud, a measure that has irritated some residents.
“It’s sad because public participation is being impacted,” said Chad Putman, a former deputy city clerk who remains active in city affairs.
Putman wants the city clerk to read comments in full during meetings. Doing so would be comparable to practices used in other localities, as well as having more impact on lawmakers and the mayor, he said.
Activists will meet outside of City Hall on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. to read their comments aloud.
Officials acknowledged an increase in residents who want to share their thoughts.
“Right now, we’re getting more people who want to submit comments who usually don’t,” Councilwoman Marion Porterfield said.
“This clearly makes the process easier for everybody,” said Kosiur, who hopes the form will only be needed for several weeks until in-person meetings resume.
Following digital disruptions by Black Lives Matter activists in July, the city stopped offering direct access to Webex, opting instead to stream the meetings on YouTube through their media partner, Open Stage Media.
But the shift has resulted in numerous problems that have led to meetings with no audio or not being streamed at all, including the meeting on Tuesday in which lawmakers discussed restoring meetings (Viewers reported, however, there were no problems with Spectrum access).
Mootooveren said lawmakers will discuss the situation with Open Stage Media, which previously attributed problems to a “technical glitch” stemming from streaming two live events at the same time.
“It’s unfortunate sometimes we have that and I feel bad for the public who can’t listen to the meeting,” Mootooveren said. “It bothers us.”