Citizen input missing from remotely conducted St. Louis County Board meeting

Online meeting platform draws all commissioners, but no public comment for the first time in memory.

Commissioners on the St. Louis County Board gathered Tuesday on Webex, an online meeting platform, to conduct a regular board meeting. (Brady Slater /

In its third meeting during the ongoing state emergency to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the St. Louis County Board met remotely again Tuesday and cracks were showing in the online procedures.

If the results were evidence, public participation during the outbreak was a casualty as no community members spoke during the meeting or the two public hearings that preceded it.

Despite board meetings having been moved this week from live public access television to a Webex online meeting platform that allowed for public questions, none came.

"My biggest concern is when are we going to once again allow public input into these meetings," Commissioner Keith Nelson, of Virginia, said during committee of the whole. "We need to figure out how we can do that."

Webex features a "raise-hand" button for public comment, but county officials confirmed during the meeting that it wasn't used.


The lack of participation was an unusual outcome, considering meetings throughout the first months of 2020 brimmed with public interaction. Attendance for the online meeting wavered throughout its first hour-plus between 35 and 45 people, the county told the News Tribune.

It's not known how many viewers tune in for live televised meetings, Public Access Television Duluth said, as it's been years since a survey has been conducted.

Nelson was one of three commissioners telecommuting from a conference room in Duluth, while four others appeared remotely from their homes and offices. Some staff were housed in the conference room with commissioners. Other county officials reported remotely on topics ranging from road-repair bid awards, federal housing grants, a land exchange beneficial to the county, and the COVID-19 outbreak at a long-term care facility in Duluth. The audio on Webex was at times spotty, with key passages from speakers being lost to electronic interference.

"This is all new to us. Please bear with us," Board Chair Mike Jugovich, of Chisholm, said early on as the meeting started 15 minutes late due to connection issues. "We'll get this figured out in short order."

County Administrator Kevin Gray acknowledged it has been a struggle, but one all public boards are facing.

"To get to this point, we're making progress," he said. "I fully agree we want a transparent and engaged board. But all public entities are struggling with how to accomplish that when you can't have people on-site."

County buildings remain closed to the public during the state of emergency, and will be at least into May.

The board agreed to move the April 28 meeting scheduled for Eveleth back to Duluth, where it will once again emanate remotely from the Government Services Center on West Second Street. Nelson argued to host meetings to Virginia, where the brand-new Government Services Center there has remote capabilities. It was agreed that for ease of effort, the meetings would remain in Duluth this month, and a Virginia meeting would be considered for May.


County Attorney Mark Rubin opened the meeting by describing the legal reasons for the meeting being conducted remotely, saying in-person meetings were "not practical or prudent" until further notice.

"We need to figure out how we involve the people we serve," Nelson said. "This is not about the county and our employees — this is about the people our employees and this board serves."

What To Read Next
Get Local