Albany, Dougherty County governments look to improve public participation in meetings

Seating space was reduced for a July 6 Dougherty County Commission meeting to maintain a safe distance between audience members. The next day, the commission decided to return to virtual meetings.

ALBANY — After more than four months of meeting virtually, local governments are still trying to adapt to the reality of the coronavirus while keeping the public involved in the process.

The shortcomings of online meetings were underscored this week when a crash interrupted live streaming of the Monday Dougherty County Commission meeting for about six minutes. And on Tuesday, several residents who signed up to make comments to the Albany City Commission did not have the opportunity to speak during the meeting.

Since mid-March, both entities, with the exception of one occasion, have conducted business through virtual meetings. The public can tune in to meetings via the city and county Facebook pages.

The glitches in the system related to providing opportunities for public comments were evident before Tuesday, but with a controversial topic on the table it brought the issue to the forefront.

Among those who did not get the opportunity to speak on Tuesday was James Pratt Jr., an Albany State University professor who had made plans to speak on the city’s sagging pants ordinance.

Several other speakers also were unable to comment.

“I signed up ahead of time, 24 hours before,” Pratt said. “I got two conformation emails. We had the password and called in, and we were never called on.”

The effort to overturn the sagging pants ordinance failed on a 6-1 vote, so it is unlikely the speakers’ comments would have affected the outcome — at least in this case.

On Tuesday, it seemed the issue was a matter of communication in alerting Mayor Bo Dorough that there were people on the line waiting to give their input, said Commissioner Demetrius Young, who sponsored the motion to overturn the sagging pants ordinance.

“Really, I guess what’s happening, it kind of fell along a procedural issue and the ball got dropped,” Young said. “The message didn’t get to the mayor that there were people signed up to speak.”

Prior to the novel coronavirus forcing the change from live to virtual meetings, individuals were allowed to sign up at the start of the meeting in order to speak on some issues.

The county provides an open comment period at the beginning of its meetings, during which members of the public can discuss any issue.

City staff members are working to give the public more opportunities to offer their opinions, said Young, who advocated for providing access to commission meetings online early in the year after he took office in January.

The city began streaming meetings on Facebook prior to the emergence of the coronavirus.

“I think that’s also valuable, particularly ahead of a vote,” Young said. “We’re just trying to get this process fixed.”

City Commissioner Jon Howard said he is confident the city’s information technology personnel will make improvements. There are several hot-button issues coming up in August, including proposed changes to the city’s dangerous dog ordinance, on which a number of residents want to weigh in.

“I was inundated by so many calls,” Howard said of the dog ordinance. “I’m pretty sure there will probably be a lot of people who want to talk about this on the 4th (of August).”

Since the spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths that hit in March the County Commission held the sole live meeting on July 6. Most of the seats were taped off, limiting the number of people who could attend in order to keep a safe distance between participants.

The county announced the return to virtual meetings the next day, as the community had experienced a resurgence in coronavirus cases. County Administrator Michael McCoy also canceled the second phase of the government’s re-opening plan on July 6 due to the surge in new cases.

Some seven speakers addressed commissioners during the live meeting that week, significantly more than have spoken during any of the virtual meetings.

Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas said he would like to return to live meetings, but acknowledged that is not possible under the current conditions.

With public safety concerns prohibiting live meetings, the IT staff are doing a great job in an environment where everyone is adapting to the situation, Cohilas said.

“It’s absolutely not optimal,” he said. “I don’t know the answer.

“We’ve got to continue to keep people safe. We have commissioners who are in high-risk groups. We’re doing the best we can, and staff is doing the best it can.”

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