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Local

Layout important for re-opening council chambers

With proper precautions, the city thinks it can resume in-person meetings again

Members of the Newton City Council convene at a past meeting in which social distancing rules were enforced. Since then, all city council meetings have been held electronically. Newton Fire Chief Jarrod Wellik and his pandemic task force have developed a layout change to the council chambers that may allow for socially distanced, in-person meetings.
Members of the Newton City Council convene at a past meeting in which social distancing rules were enforced. Since then, all city council meetings have been held electronically. Newton Fire Chief Jarrod Wellik and his pandemic task force have developed a layout change to the council chambers that may allow for socially distanced, in-person meetings.

Further discussion from elected officials and health committees have determined the council chambers is still the ideal location to hold public meetings in-person, and that a larger venue — such as Baqara Coliseum and the auditorium in DMACC — may still be an option if the situation arises.

Two weeks ago, the Newton City Council debated whether or not to resume city council meetings in the council chambers of city hall. Council members noted the importance of holding in-person meetings, partly because of the ease of citizen interaction. Zoom meets still allow that interaction, but it appears to be limited.

Oftentimes, citizens would have to call in to city hall during a meeting in progress or shortly before a meeting to submit comments or questions. From what the Newton News has experienced watching the online broadcasts, public comment has been minimal, but that could be because of the changed format.

When council members first discussed the possible resuming of in-person meetings, there was interest in renting space from a larger venue. Newton Fire Chief Jarrod Wellik and his task force, which have been monitored the COVID-19 pandemic, determined the council chambers was still the ideal setting.

At the Monday, July 20 city council meeting, Wellik told council members the equipment to stream the meetings from the chambers was an invaluable asset. Live broadcasting meetings from an outside source would be a challenge for the city, particularly if the recording equipment is not mobile.

“And the space really would provide some sense of normalcy for our citizens as well,” Wellik said. “We did explore a couple other options … (Baqara and DMACC) would be excellent venues to host city council meetings. Should the need arise they would both offer great social distancing for larger gatherings.”

Other than the costs of buying new equipment, the council chambers is more ideal because the needs a stable network connection, which is difficult to acquire at an off-site location. Wellik said it seems like it would take nothing more than a web cam and some microphones, but it’s more complicated than that.

“It is, apparently, not that simplistic,” he said.

Newton Mayor Mike Hansen said the city would lose its ability to broadcast via TV. Hansen told the task force the priority should be the council chambers. In the “rare instance” council members have a controversial issue, then they can have that conversation about moving to another venue wired for broadcast.

If meetings were to resume in the council chambers, Wellik said the layout of the room would be altered in a way that would maintain social distancing. The dais would allow for three people: the mayor, the city administrator and city attorney. Council members will be spread out on the main floor.

The task force also recommended that masks be required for council members, city staff and guests that attend the meeting. Visitors will be screened with questions before entering, too, and receive temperature checks. If a temperature reads a little high, the check will be administered again after five minutes.

To mitigate possible spread during public input periods, Wellik said he’d prefer to see the podium removed and the microphone would be placed in the north door of the council chambers. Wellik also said a microphone stand could also work. Hand sanitizer would be available to the public in restrooms and other areas.

Councilperson Evelyn George said it is an “excellent proposal” that had given careful consideration to social distancing and laid it all out for council members to visualize. The plan balances safety of those in attendance while also giving citizens the ability to provide input.

“I appreciate that work and I would like to try it and see what impact that has,” George said. “We’ve certainly seen a change in our COVID cases, both in this community and the state since our last meeting.”

Councilperson Mark Hallam agreed.

“I think we should give it a shot,” he said. “I totally agree with the mask requirement, too.”

Zoom will still be used for city council meetings, even if the council chambers open. Phone call participation will be available, too. Until an audio issue is resolved, city council members will continue to meet electronically. However, the Newton City Council was in consensus of the plan, meeting their approval.

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com

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