For the foreseeable future, the Bradley County Commission will conduct virtual meetings on an electronic platform instead of meeting in person.
The Bradley County Commission’s IT Committee met Monday to discuss moving forward after Gov. Bill Lee issued an executive order on Friday “ensuring government continues to function openly and transparently during the COVID-19 emergency while taking appropriate measures to protect the health and safety of citizens and government officials.”
Executive Order No. 16 stated "it is critical to limiting the community spread of COVID-19 that private and governmental entities of all types eliminate large public gatherings and conduct business remotely by electronic means to the greatest extent possible …" and "state, county and municipal governing bodies must continue to meet to carry out essential functions … "
IT Committee Chairman Dennis Epperson led the meeting from the County Commission Courtroom of the Courthouse, while members Milan Blake, Erica Davis, Charlotte Peak and Cindy Slater attended via video call.
Also present in-person were County Commission Chairman Johnny Mull: Lorri Moultrie, executive administrative assistant to the county commission; and a Cleveland Daily Banner reporter. Social distancing of at least six feet between attendees was observed.
“We appreciate you all joining us by electronic means,” Epperson said to the other committee members. He added he hesitated to call the meeting because he didn’t want to endanger anyone, but the process for virtual meetings needed to be addressed.
“Just recently in Nashville, legislation on allowing electronic participation in meetings of local governing bodies was taken up by the General Assembly,” Epperson said. “But unfortunately, they left this issue unresolved as they recessed until June 1.”
He also noted he and his fellow commissioners are appreciative of the governor “... for understanding the severity of this situation. And he found it important that local governments were granted options during these uncertain times that we all find ourselves in.”
Epperson also credited Lee for “being the leader he is” and issuing an executive order “for local governments, if needed, to conduct business electronically.
“I struggled with even calling this meeting, not wanting to put anyone in danger. But not knowing what lies ahead, I knew we had to meet in hopes of a motion coming from this IT committee for the commission to consider moving forward,” Epperson said. “I believe it’s in everyone’s interest that our local government continues to operate in a safe manner during the [COVID-19] pandemic.”
Committee members decided to skip discussion of the HCI application and Farmers Market North application in favor of expediting the meeting to consider the most pressing matter.
“I think that we’re here to talk about the executive order and so that needs to be our main issue that we cover today,” Commissioner Davis said.
The other committee members agreed, and discussion moved on to the executive order.
Leading up to making a motion, Peak said they are following advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and social distancing and the executive order signed by Lee allowing commissions to conduct business virtually “during this unprecedented time.”
“I make a motion to meet electronically or virtually if (Bradley County Mayor D. Gary Davis) and our Chairman (Mull) deem it necessary for the safety of the public and our commissioners and staff,” Peak said.
The motion also included appointing Lindsay Hathcock as the liaison with Lorri Moultrie to find a platform for the virtual meetings and work with Mull on how to facilitate that.
Hathcock is executive administrative assistant to Mayor Davis, and part of his duties include IT.
Commissioner Davis seconded the motion, but noted in the executive order that Lee recommended a virtual meeting platform.
“He basically laid everything out for us in saying that he would like us to use Webex as the platform because they’re going to give it to us for free for the next 90 days,” she said.
Cisco Webex is used for video conferencing, online meetings, screen share and webinars.
Commissioner Davis added what they need to discuss is how to provide the virtual platform to commissioners, and how to give the public access to the meetings.
“I think really that’s what needs to be discussed,” she said, adding the governor “basically told us what to use and how long to use it for.”
Peak said she made her motion to “[get] the ball rolling,” and included Hathcock because he has made recommendations for virtual meetings.
“I don’t care what platform [is used],” Peak said.
“A lot of details need to be worked out, no matter what route we go,” Epperson said, adding he feels comfortable letting the mayor, chairman, Hathcock and Moultrie make meeting plans.
Peak said if an emergency comes up and a called meeting is needed, the mayor and Mull could agree it is necessary to meet and allow it to be done virtually. Then it would be up to Hathcock and Moultrie to share how to make it work.
Slater asked Blake for his opinion on a virtual meeting platform, based on his professional experience with them.
Blake said he has used Webex and Zoom “and they both have their goods and their bads.” He is concerned about the logistics of conducting virtual meetings.
“The technology, I think, it will be rough at first, but you’ll get used to it,” Blake said.
However, he was also concerned about “the protocols” of whether Bradley County Clerk Donna Simpson has to be present for the virtual meeting.
Simpson keeps the minutes of county commission meetings, and also takes roll-call votes.
Blake asked if the mayor and chairman have to agree to call meetings just for voting sessions, or also for work sessions. He also asked how the public will be able to participate in virtual meetings.
Commissioner Davis suggested creating a Bradley County Commission Facebook page and Moultrie could video from her phone the Webex meeting, creating a livestream.
“I was just thinking of how to give the public access,” she said.
Blake said it should work, but questioned the quality of the video and “how do you handle the technical aspects of it?” He said the laptop computers the commissioners use in their meetings don’t have cameras, so they can’t participate using them, unless audio-only participation is OK.
Commissioner Davis said they could use their smartphones to connect to the meeting platform, adding “we’ll have to do several practice runs to make sure everybody is on the same page.”
“Logistically, I think there’s a lot of questions that need to be answered,” she said.
Blake said Hathcock and WrightCore Inc., need to present a “solution that covers all these issues.”
Mull said Hathcock has provided information from the state about picking the right meeting platform “that probably you guys need to have” for discussion. He said each will get copies of that information.
Blake said all this is until May 18, which is the end of the executive order.
Peak asked how budget hearings will be handled, and if the process is on schedule.
Blake, who is chairman of the Finance Committee, said he has spoken with Mayor Davis about it and the process is currently on schedule, with budget-request documents from county departments and offices due last night (Monday).
“This gives us an opportunity … to continue to operate in a safe manner,” Epperson said of the virtual meeting plan.
Blake said the court system has a system in place, “so I can only assume, hopefully, that it is the same setup” for government meetings.
Mull said he has heard the court system “is working pretty well,” but his concern is how to make it accessible to the public.
Blake agreed, noting his concern is how the commissioners can get input from the public; for example, concerns around the Bradley County Landfill have been prominent lately.
Commissioner Davis suggested the public can send messages and questions, and commissioners can address them.
“I know it’s not the best solution, but you’re at least allowing them to have input in the meeting if you open it up for questions and they can tag the questions,” she said.
And, if anyone doesn’t want to publicly tag their question, they can send it privately via Messenger.
“Obviously, we have many things to consider,” Mull said, adding he believes the committee hit on the areas of importance, and with involving Hathcock and WrightCore, “then I think we’ll be good to go.”
Following discussion, the motion was unanimously approved.
“How does the full commission vote on us moving forward with virtual (meetings)?” Peak asked.
Epperson said they can ask Bradley County Attorney Crystal Freiberg for clarification.
Mull asked Moultrie to contact Freiberg and report back.
In discussing the April 6 voting session — which is currently the next meeting on the county commission’s regular schedule — Mull noted if that meeting is not held electronically, it will likely be canceled.
No comments were made regarding a Finance Committee meeting also scheduled for April 6.
Copies of documents from the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury related to conducting public meetings by electronic means are attached to this article online at www.clevelandbanner.com.
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