As the March 26 Paradise Valley Town Council meeting got underway, the room looked starkly different than it did almost two weeks earlier.
Rather than councilmembers surrounding the table in the Town Hall boardroom, empty chairs lay dormant around a cleared table. Amid the empty room sat Town Clerk Duncan Miller, who was busy at work ensuring the meeting’s new format flowed smoothly,
That format consists of councilmembers meeting telephonically or via video chat while also allowing for residents to chime in remotely. This new format came about after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led Mayor Jerry Bien-Willner to declare a state of emergency in the town.
The federal and state governments have issued numerous guidelines to help dull the spread of the novel coronavirus. Many of these guidelines recommend people stay at home whenever possible and businesses close with the exception of essential operations, which the state outlined.
In Paradise Valley, the Town Council approved Mr. Bien-Willner’s emergency declaration at a March 17 special meeting as well as a directive for town staff to develop a remote plan to conduct meetings while still allowing for the public to participate.
Mr. Miller says Paradise Valley was already well-equipped prior to the pandemic to conduct public meetings while still adhering to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social distancing recommendations.
“Public transparency has been a long-standing goal for the Town Council,” Mr. Miller said via email. “To that end, the council has made investments in technology over the past several years to enhance the public’s ability to observe and participate in meetings remotely long before this pandemic.”
Some of those Mr. Miller pointed to were the Granicus Government Transparency Software Suite, which allows the public to view agendas, minutes and meetings, both live and recorded. This system also allows residents to submit ecomments.
Other updates Mr. Miller highlighted was upgraded audio and video technology from a year ago, which allowed councilmembers to participate via Zoom Video Conference.
Mr. Miller presented a set of guidelines for town councilmembers and staff on how to participate in the meeting. The town will conduct other public meetings, such as Town Council, Board of Adjustment, Planning Commission and Hillside Building Committee, through similar methods.
Councilmember Paul Dembow voiced his appreciation to Mr. Miller and the rest of town staff that worked to make the meeting possible.
“What horrible times we live in but thank God that this technology exists so you can still have open and transparent meetings,” he said during the meeting. “Typical of you Duncan. You handled it in stride and everyone else who helped you, I don’t know the names of who did, but excellent, excellent job.”
Mr. Bien-Willner said he believes it is crucial to what the town stands for to conduct its business in the public eye because the council works for the public.
“Public participation and opportunity for input is not only required under the law, it is extremely valuable,” he said via email.
“While COVID-19 has required the town to adjust how we conduct our meetings to keep everyone as safe as possible and follow expert guidance about not gathering in groups and keeping physical distance, it’s likewise important that we continue to do the town’s business effectively and in an equally open and transparent manner.”
To accomplish that goal, the town has distributed steps on how residents can participate in meetings. Those looking to view live meetings need to:
The town has established three methods for participation: Zoom Conference; submitting questions and comments; and speaking during the call to the public and public hearings.
To submit questions and comments, residents can:
The town asks residents to submit request at least an hour before the meeting begins. Residents can also email Mr. Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org to submit comments but are encouraged to do so at least an hour prior to the start of the meeting.
In order to speak during the meeting, residents should:
If residents are attending via Zoom, they can click the chat button and enter their name and the agenda item they would like to speak on during the meeting.
Mr. Bien-Willner encouraged residents to contact Mr. Miller via email with questions and comments on the new format.
“Duncan Miller, Town Manager Jill Keimach, Sarah Meland, the town’s IT department and many other dedicated staff members deserve great credit for the great work done to allow the town’s public meetings to transition to the ‘virtual world’ so smoothly and effectively,” Mr. Bien-Willner said.
“The council and our boards are really doing a great job with this new format, too. I welcome public comment or input about the new meeting process or other town items as well.”
Mr. Bien-Willner can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 480-348-3660.