Remote public input foiled again at St. Louis County Board meeting
Commissioners press county administration to ratchet up ability to hear from citizens.
A lack of public participation due to the COVID-19 pandemic continues to concern St. Louis County commissioners, as the issue surfaced again Tuesday during an online board meeting based in Duluth.
The board got its first citizen participant since moving to online-only meetings several weeks ago to accommodate for stay-at-home orders and closed public facilities. But it did not go well, as the resident was unable to chime in through the Webex portal being used by the county.
Following the glitch, Commissioner Patrick Boyle called on the county to step up its efforts to find ways residents can address the board during meetings. The Webex site has a hand-raising tool that ought to allow citizens to join in the meeting, but it has yet to prove its functionality with the local board.
"I want to make this the easiest, most accessible way we can to move forward to let our citizens be heard," Boyle said. "We don't know how long this virus is going to be with us, but it could be ongoing for a long time."
Boyle, who represents eastern Duluth, said that citizens over 65 and with preexisting conditions are among those who may not be inclined to join public meetings if and when the board goes live again — scheduled for May 26 in Buhl. Older people are among those most vulnerable to the debilitating effects of the COVID-19 disease brought on by the new coronavirus.
Boyle called for a solution by the end of the month.
Commissioner Keith Nelson, of Virginia, has been speaking to the same point for weeks, and spoke again in support of Boyle.
"People of my district are at a disadvantage," Nelson said. "We do not have the internet capability in rural areas. It's incumbent on us to find ways to make that happen. People want to be heard and have a right to be heard."
County Administrator Kevin Gray reached out to the woman who could not get through during the board meeting. He continued to call it a challenge all governmental units are facing.
"More so when it's a county the size and breath of St. Louis County," Gray said. "We're continuing to try and improve each meeting."
Citizens are allowed to address the board shortly after the start of each meeting. Since the move to wholly online meetings, the board has not had any citizen input — a stark contrast to earlier in the year when the board was regularly receiving several citizen commentators at its meetings.