But how many virtual days allowed?
By Kendra Walker
The Mt. Crested Butte town council is considering loosening its restrictions on council members who tune into meetings remotely when they are unable to attend in person. The council first began conducting meetings via Zoom during COVID. Last April, the council returned to in-person meetings, and subsequently became equipped to allow the public to attend virtually. Currently, if council members can’t make a meeting in person, they can tune in via Zoom but are not allowed to participate or cast a vote. However, some councilmembers are advocating for a rule change to allow virtual council participation; during their March 7 meeting, the council discussed that possibility, along with rules and restrictions to ensure that in-person attendance is the priority.
“The town has invested in technology to facilitate virtual meetings and participation generally for the public, but it’s not something we’ve done for councilors,” said mayor Nicholas Kempin. “Currently you have to be [physically] present to vote in a meeting.”
Council member Roman Kolodziej is strongly in favor of allowing council members to participate remotely. “It’s participation for me, not presence,” he said. “I enjoy a lifestyle that involves traveling. If I’m going to be gone for a monthlong trip, I’d still like to participate.”
Kolodziej suggested ideas for how to make the concept work, including notifying the town clerk well in advance, determining a maximum number of councilmembers that could tune in remotely at any given meeting, and determining a maximum number of times a year a councilmember could tune in virtually.
The council remained split on the idea, however. Kempin and councilmembers Janet Farmer and Alec Lindeman expressed their opposition to remote council participation. Kolodziej and councilmembers Steve Morris, Dwayne Lehnertz and Michael Bacani were open to making some sort of adjustment.
Farmer brought up concerns about technology. “The last time I listened in there were huge chunks when I couldn’t hear.” Kolodziej pointed out that everyone, including himself, could do a better job of speaking into the microphones for better Zoom audio. Farmer also noted that it would be difficult to get a quorum if the electronics were malfunctioning and most of the council was online.
Kempin agreed, adding, “I do think it has the potential to add time to our meetings. You throw in the echo and people end up talking over each other. One concern I have is what if we have a public hearing and nobody is in the room?” The council agreed there should be a requirement for a certain number of council members to be physically present.
“I was opposed to it for quite a while, but just seeing what’s on our plate and knowing the value of everybody’s input I now feel differently,” said councilmember Morris. “Seeing as how other organizations we’re working with in the valley do Zoom, I think there’s value to it and not missing out on valuable input from councilors.”
Lehnertz said that while in-person attendance should always be the highest priority, he wasn’t against allowing virtual participation and not excluding council voices. “My default is to be here. The only reason I would want to participate remotely is if there was some conflict that came up, but my default is to be here all the time,” he said.
Lindeman said he was willing to entertain the idea. “My reservations are largely based on precedent. There’s something to be said for having to make the difficult decision sometimes that I’m going to be more present in this valley than I prefer because this is a commitment I made. There’s a reason we have a chamber, there’s something to be said for quorum and paying respect to that concept. That’s personally how I very much feel, but knowing that there is strong belief otherwise…I’d be willing to look at options.”
The council discussed how many days a councilmember would be allowed to attend virtually, as well as the number of councilmembers allowed to participate virtually at any given meeting. However, with some councilmembers still on the fence, the group wasn’t sure how to determine the numbers that felt appropriate. Because they remained undecided on how best to proceed, the town’s legal counsel, Gerald Dahl, advised the council to direct town staff to create a decision tree with a wide range of options, which council will review and discuss at their next meeting on March 21.