Whitefish City Council moves meetings online

by HEIDI DESCH
Editor | September 22, 2020 2:20 PM

Following a tense meeting with emotions running high, Whitefish City Council Monday unanimously approved an emergency ordinance to hold future Council meetings electronically.

Mayor John Muhlfeld opened the meeting by asking those in attendance to wear a mask in accordance with Gov. Steve Bullock’s directive that a face covering must be worn inside public buildings amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Muhlfeld said if those in the audience weren’t willing to wear a mask, he would be forced to adjourn the meeting.

“I’m not willing to put this Council or the public at risk,” Muhlfeld said.

Several of the roughly 30 people in attendance were not wearing masks when the meeting began. Many complied with the Mayor’s request, while others shouted complaints at the Council saying they have a medical reason for not wearing a mask and one man claimed the requirement to be a violation of his rights.

Council approved the emergency ordinance that allows for remote meetings of the City Council. The Planning Board and other city boards and committees may also hold remote meetings if approved by a majority of those boards.

Councilor Steve Qunell said he doesn’t like the electronic meetings, but they’ve become a necessity.

“I don’t think this would be necessary if there was solidarity about what do in this pandemic,” he said. “As a public school teacher, I teach government civics and I tell my students that we are a government of rules and laws, and that no one is above those rules. It has become necessary to move to remote meetings because people don’t follow the rules.”

The city has taken measures to attempt to maintain social distancing at City Council meetings such as spreading out audience chairs 6 feet apart and having Council members sit spread apart. However, a few meetings this summer have been attended by a greater number of people making it extremely difficult to social distance, and as was the case on Monday several individuals at meetings have not been wearing face coverings.

On Monday City Hall also closed to the public after an employee tested positive for COVID-19 and remains closed until further notice.

During public comment Monday, those opposed to holding meetings electronically said they feared not being able to access the meetings and that their opinions would be lost. While others claimed the requirement to wear a mask violates their constitutional rights.

Jill Goodrich said that there is no evidence that cloth masks protect anyone. “If we were in a real pandemic there would be masks being handed out and there would be hand washing stations all around,” she told Council. “You have to cling to masks because you can’t be bothered to change.”

Catherine Owens said that people are loosing their jobs because businesses are being forced to shut down as a result of the requirement to wear masks. She told Council that if people are required to work wearing masks, they can too.

“You can have board meetings,” she said. “You can show solidarity with the people you are asking to lose their jobs.”

“We are not dying and if we were I would wear a mask,” Owens added. “I don’t know anybody who has died.”

Following the vote, Councilor Andy Feury pointed out that there have been 11 people who have died at the Whitefish Care and Rehabilitation Center as a result of COVID-19 and there have also been 200,000 deaths in the country as a result of the virus, all of whom had friends and family members who have felt that loss.

“I can’t stand by and watch people make light of those losses people are experiencing right now in this country,” he said. “That’s absolutely terrible and it upsets me.”

Feury said he too prefers in-person meetings, but in order to allow participation by those who don’t feel comfortable attending meetings at City Hall it has become necessary to move to remote meetings.

“There are people who don’t come here now because they have health issues and they don’t come because they don’t feel safe,” he said. “Our system of government looks to serve everyone — not just one group or another, but to serve all of us. This is about the good of the whole — not the good of the individual. Somehow the sole act of citizenship and patriotism in this country has become an expression of individualism and it’s actually us working together to make this a better place.”

A few people spoke in favor of holding electronic meetings suggesting that it would be important to provide education on how the electronic meetings work so all may access them.

Lisa Jones told Council she supports the electronic meetings and that it doesn’t end the ability to comment.

“Remote meetings make the most sense,” she said. “From years of public participation, I know there’s many ways to provide comment through mail and email. There’s lots of ways to participate.”

City Attorney Angela Jacobs said the emergency ordinance remains in effect for 90 days and if Council deems it necessary to hold electronic meetings longer than that, the city would look into how to facilitate it. She noted that the Montana Attorney General issued a letter that says public meetings can be held remotely with an opportunity for public participation.

In the spring, Council and Planning Board held remote meetings, but began meeting in person again in June.

“City officials, board members, committee members, staff members and city citizens have expressed concern about attending public meetings given the difficulties associated with social distancing and attendees not wearing masks,” she said.

In order to hold meetings remotely, the city is using a subscription with WebEx, which is the same software it used in the spring during the statewide stay at home order. A one-year subscription to the service is estimated at $2,700.

Costs incurred for remote meetings are eligible for expenses under the CARES Act and city officials expect that all costs will be fully covered.

City Hall remains closed as a measure to protect the public and employees, City Manager Dana Smith said, after an employee who last worked at City Hall on Thursday, Sept. 17 tested positive for the virus.

“Out of an abundance of caution for the health and well-being of our customers and employees, as well as to allow employees to work remotely as much as possible, we have chosen to temporarily close City Hall,” Smith said.

Following the positive test by an employee, the city began working with the Flathead City-County Health Department and anyone considered a close contact will be notified by the health department. 

Smith said all potentially exposed employees are isolating at home and a deep cleaning of City Hall was scheduled for Sunday. 

“The health and safety of our customers and employees is our highest priority,” said Smith. “We appreciate your understanding as we navigate these challenging times. Please remember to follow the guidance from the health department and the Governor’s directives to help us slow the spread of COVID-19.”

All city services will remain available remotely, by phone or email. The vestibule at City Hall will be open for the public to drop off building plans or other applications. Payments may be mailed, dropped off in the payment drop box off Baker Avenue, or made by credit card over the phone by calling 406-863-2400 or online at www.cityofwhitefish.org.

The public is also encouraged to sign up for notifications on the city’s new website at www.cityofwhitefish.org.