With other options available — perfectly reasonable, easily doable, and far safer options — the decision of four St. Louis County Board members to meet this week in-person and inside a cramped jury room without technology for remote participation and without work done yet to improve air quality was, at best, baffling and troubling.
At worst, it was a dangerous flouting of public health safety guidelines, a reckless political power play, and a disregarding of the sort of governmental transparency the public should be able to expect from its elected officials.
Even though COVID-19 cases and deaths were on the rise in St. Louis County —with cases being added at a faster clip than anywhere else in the state — the four commissioners voted Aug. 4 to go ahead with this week’s live public meeting rather than hold a virtual County Board meeting like they had been doing. Those commissioners were Mike Jugovich of Chisholm, Paul McDonald of Ely, Keith Musolf of Hermantown, and Keith Nelson of Virginia.
Nelson even brushed off legitimate health concerns with a dismissive, “I don’t think it’s ever going to be enough for some people — it’s never, ever, ever going to be enough.”
Yes, it is.
Virtual meetings with live public viewing online and with provisions for public comment may be less than ideal. But they’re a viable alternative right now that allows elected governing bodies to continue to function in the open and in a way that protects public health. It’s using readily available technology to get us through during a deadly global pandemic that’s only growing deadlier. For most constituents, it’s more than enough at this moment.
This week, though, the St. Louis County Board met in a cramped jury lounge inside the county courthouse in Hibbing. Three Duluth commissioners who voted against the meeting’s logistics — Patrick Boyle, Frank Jewell, and Beth Olson — attended by telephone, their only option at a site without videoconferencing technology. Because of distancing requirements, only a few members of the public were able to attend, and they were to be ushered in one at a time. No one from the public was able to monitor the proceedings remotely, either. Further, ionization equipment in the Hibbing courthouse’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems had not yet been updated as planned, as county staff confirmed for a News Tribune story on Saturday.
"By meeting in person, the County Board is putting its staff and any members of the public who wish to attend at risk of catching the virus and passing it on to others," Jewell said in a news release ahead of the meeting. "Instead of role modeling preventative behaviors, we are doing the opposite."
The County Board could have still held Tuesday’s meeting on the Iron Range, if that was a concern of Iron Range commissioners. Like the government services centers in Duluth, the government services center in Virginia has online Webex capabilities that allow open public meetings with adequate health safeguards. Plowing ahead only fueled suspicions that there remain those intent on dividing the county, Duluth vs. the Iron Range.
Ironically, the board was voting Tuesday on federal COVID-19 relief funding and the disbursement of $24.5 million to help ensure the safety of staff and the public in county-operated facilities.
The board isn’t to meet again now until Sept 1. Commissioners — all of them, working together — can recommit to conducting the public’s business with transparency and public health protections, both considerations needlessly and inexplicably shoved aside this week.
(This editorial was updated at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday. Aug. 12 to correct the date of the County Board's next meeting.)