The first phase of reopening city buildings is slated to begin June 1 in Jacksonville Beach, but city officials will continue to monitor the level of public access. Employees working from home during the past several weeks resumed duties last week at City Hall and other government facilities with proper social distancing and providing the appropriate PPE for those working closer than the suggested six-foot separation.
“The next phase for us will be talking about when is the appropriate time to reopen our city facilities, in particular with City Hall to the public. This will allow us to do a lot of different things. First and foremost is to allow us to start doing those quasi-judicial functions that have essentially been on hold due to COVID-19 and the safer-at-home declarations,” said City Manager Mike Staffopoulos.
By reopening June 1, Staffopoulos said the public would be permitted to enter City Hall to conduct such transactional business as paying utility bills and acquiring building permits. Council members suggested they maintain the current meeting format while the governor’s state of emergency remains in effect. It was recently extended until July 7.
Staffopoulos proposed holding public meetings in a “hybrid format” at City Hall with council members present and a limited number of public attendees adequately spaced. Elected officials would maintain the option to participate in the meeting online. If
an agenda item required or resulted in more people showing up than the room had the capacity to hold, staff could establish a staging area where people could be brought in to speak to certain issues and held in a hallway or exterior of the building between items. Multiple forms of public input would also be available in order to participate in the meeting, he said.
“Recognizing that there is still a portion of our population, those who are 65 and older and those that have underlying health conditions are still being advised not to leave their homes unless absolutely necessary, we still need to maintain multiple forms of their input in how we conduct our business. This is one of those things if we are going to open our City Hall to conduct transactional business such as allowing people into the lobby of City Hall to start paying their utility bills we need to be putting the tape marking on the floors and having someone at the doors to making sure we don’t exceed capacity. If we are conducting transactional business, at what point in time do we start holding our City Council meetings in some modified fashion?” Staffopoulos questioned.
“If the council is not comfortable coming back into City Hall until further restrictions are lifted, than it’s a little tentative as to why I’m opening up the building to the remainder of the public if you all who represent the public don’t want to come into the building. You can see there’s a dilemma here. If I open the doors, we’re open for business. If I don’t, we’re closed for business. Council meetings, Board of Adjustment, special magistrate, it’s all part of being open to the public. “
Councilor Georgette Dumont expressed concern that a hybrid format would limit the ability to actively engage during a public meeting. “I would not be on video and I would not be able to see the people who are speaking unless I was watching on YouTube. It would be just a little back of head. We would call in so we would lose that visual aspect,” she said.
Dumont also noted that the June 1 council agenda includes a discussion about whether to proceed with July 4 fireworks. “I don’t expect it to be an empty hall. You get fireworks on the agenda even if it is just for discussion, you’re going to get a lot of people,” she said. “I don’t know what else is going to be on the June 1 agenda either. If there are going to be more contentious issues, I just don’t see it being a smooth flowing meeting. I remember the last couple times we were considering not doing fireworks and it was standing room only so that’s something we should consider.”
Mayor Charlie Latham said opening City Hall to transactional business is not the same thing as gathering in high numbers in Council Chambers. “I know we need to move forward. There’s a lot of people waiting for variances to have work done around their house and for that reason, it’s important that we get open as fast as we can,” he said. “In my mind you’re talking about two situations. Even though you’re talking about opening City Hall, I don’t think that necessarily means you have to conduct meetings. If we are still in a social distancing element, I’m not comfortable asking the council to come back to council chambers.”