City gears up for videoconferenced public meetings

City administrators cleared the technological hurdles this week that will allow the mayor and a ward representative to attend the Muskogee City Council meeting by means of videoconferencing from two remote locations.   

Members of the public also have the option to attend the meeting on Monday from those locations and avoid crowding into council chambers on the third floor of City Hall. Steps were taken to establish videoconferencing capabilities after the Nov. 15 expiration of an amendment to the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act that allowed public bodies to meet virtually during the pandemic.

The relaxed rules for open meetings authorized by Senate Bill 661 allowed public bodies to meet and conduct business while limiting or avoiding contact with others. The intent was to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic by curbing community spread. 

City Manager Mike Miller said lawmakers were hoping when they wrote the law that "by Nov. 15 we wouldn't have to worry about it anymore." That projection, he said, turned out to be "just a little too optimistic."

City Attorney Roy Tucker said extending the relaxed rules would require a special legislative session. He said it appears there is little chance for that to happen. 

"The Legislature has determined not to make the amendment permanent — at least not in their absence of their legislative session — which will be in February," Tucker said. "What we are left with are provisions in the existing act, which allows videoconferencing in very limited circumstances."

Tucker said state law requires a majority of the members of a public body be present where public meetings are scheduled to take place. City councilors must be able to see and hear each other during the entire meeting, and the ability to allow public participation must exist at all locations. 

"The meeting notices have to represent which members will be attending remotely along with the address of the location from which they will attend," Tucker said. "So it is advisable to have it where the public can enter and not have it at somebody's home."

Mayor Marlon Coleman will attend the meeting from Muskogee Civic Center, 425 Boston St., and Ward I Councilor Evelyn Hibbs will attend from Whitlock Wishouse, 1113 N. Country Club Road. The meeting, which starts at 5:30 p.m. Monday, regularly convenes in Council Chambers on the third floor at City Hall, 229 W. Okmulgee Ave.

"There are challenges, but during these times we're trying to do the best we can to meet those challenges," Miller said Friday. "It did take a lot to set that up, we have additional equipment that we had to locate, and our Council Chambers will look a little different — there will be more monitors around the room." 

Miller said there will be no need for additional staff at the remote locations. While the additional cost of videoconferencing capabilities had not been tallied Friday, he said the expense would be tracked in case additional funding is made available for the costs of pandemic response and recovery.

Tucker said videoconferencing exceptions to state law prohibit attendance during an executive session. He said any councilor who attends via videoconferencing would be considered absent if an executive session is on the agenda.

Residents who wish to comment publicly may sign up by call the Muskogee City Clerk's Office, (918) 684-6270, or send an email to cityclerk@muskogeeonline.org while the city continues to operate pursuant to its disaster declaration. Residents must register between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. and provide a name, address, phone number and the topic about which they wish to comment.

Residents who have registered to speak and those who want to listen by telephone from a remote location may do so by calling (346) 248-7799 and keying in the access code: 814-0385-3588.

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