Laramie City Council rejects in-person meeting option

By: 
Abby Vander Graaff with the Laramie Boomerang, via the Wyoming News Exchange

LARAMIE — Despite complaints from residents, Laramie City Council voted to continue its virtual-only format on Tuesday during a Zoom meeting. 

Council member Bryan Shuster brought forward a motion that would allow the city to provide a hybrid meeting format — city councilors and the public would have the option to attend the meetings in-person or remotely through a video call. 

Residents have requested the city offer an in-person option to its meetings for months as other businesses and governments have returned to in-person operations. 

In the past, residents have said the virtual-only format has impeded access for the public to interact with the council and have shown up outside City Hall to engage with the council to no avail. 

The resolution failed, with only two “yes” votes from Shuster and councilor Pat Gabriel, and “no” votes from the rest of the council. 

“I have a choice to come, but our staff doesn’t have a choice,” said councilor Erin O’Doherty. “We’re forcing staff to be subjected to everybody’s personal whim on how they want to treat public health.” 

She described situations in the beginning of the pandemic where staff members were trapped in the council chambers with people who did not follow COVID-19 safety guidelines. 

While the city has attempted to make changes to the chambers to allow for better air filtration, there have been delays in getting the proper equipment for this, she said. The equipment is now expected to arrive in November. 

Councilor Sharon Cumbie, who also serves on the Laramie Board of Health, said she has public health concerns regarding the prevalence of long-COVID and the approach of winter, which in the past has come with spikes in case numbers.

“Though our community is doing well, I think the bottom line is we don’t know quite yet if it’s over,” Cumbie said. She suggested the council wait until later in the year when there’s a better idea of winter case counts and the ventilation system in the council chambers has been updated. 

Three members of the public expressed their support for an in-person option during the Tuesday meeting. 

Tom Mattimore said virtual meetings restrict public input opportunities for people who don’t know how to use Zoom or don’t have a computer. 

He added that the virtual option was contributing to a growing sense of mistrust locals feel toward the city government. 

Terrance Benson agreed with this point, noting that the ability to see faces, crowd size or hand gestures is lacking with the virtual option and creates a barrier to communication. 

“I’m concerned about any time when a government seems that they are walling themselves off from the people,” Benson said. “Sometimes these things start looking like a cover for transparency in the government.” 

Councilor Jayne Pearce said research shows that meetings are most effective when they are completely in-person or completely virtual. She suggested that if the council meets in a hybrid format, it would need to have the appropriate technology and staffing to monitor both modes of communication. 

The city does have video cameras and a Meeting Owl video camera that could be used for virtual meetings, according to city staff members. 

Mayor Paul Weaver said that virtual meeting options have resulted in increased engagement among the public and noted that whether its access to a car, free time or technology, there will always be barriers to meeting attendance for the public. 

“I don’t buy the technology is a challenge,” Councilor Fred Schmechel said. “It might exclude certain people, but I feel like that’s a choice of theirs, that they don’t want to call in or Zoom in in any way.”

 

 

This story was published on Oct. 6, 2022.

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