The St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners will meet in-person Tuesday, April 6 for the first time this year. Up to 25 people will be allowed into the room including members of the public but the meeting will also be broadcast live via Zoom.
During its executive meeting on Wednesday, March 31, commissioners discussed the prospect of an emergency declaration to continue meeting virtually after the extension of the exception to the Open Meetings Act expired this week. The state law gave local governments the ability to conduct meetings virtually on video conferencing platforms like Zoom, which St. Joseph County has used all of 2021 and much of 2020 to conduct its business. But in order for commissioners to continue meeting virtually and other county advisory boards and committees for that matter, a local declaration of emergency needs to be passed.
The board appeared split on how soon it should return to in-person meetings based on discussion among commissioners Wednesday. Commissioners Ken Malone and Jared Hoffmaster were adamant about returning to meeting in-person, while Commissioners Kathy Pangle and Dan Czajkowski expressed concerns about the recent spike in positive cases within the county and the safety of the general public as well as committee members who don’t feel comfortable returning to in-person meetings at this time.
“I serve on like 10 different committees and they’re all asking me if we do not declare the state of emergency, that means they’re going to have to meet in-person, and some of them are having issues with that,” Pangle said. “A lot of the committees I’m on they’re not ready to go back to in-person, a lot of older people and they’re kind of frowning on that right now because of the uptick.”
Czajkowski said the commission should continue meeting virtually until the pandemic “is settled.”
“I’m listening to all of this, and we’re talking about the banks and everybody else is all going virtual and it worked so well and everything, and then we are going back and forth on just extending this emergency, ‘should we or should we not,’ the uptick is there. It seems like we’re being a little bit hypocritical here,” Czajkowski said.
“We’ve got a problem with the uptick and we should declare this emergency, and keep people safe and keep them comfortable, and the virtual meetings are doing just fine. Then what are we worried about? Just do the emergency and continue on until this whole thing is settled and we don’t have to second guess ourselves.”
Hoffmaster said he still thinks “we should get together in-person.”
“We have vaccinations, people can come in on Zoom if they want, if they don’t feel comfortable being in the chambers, it sounds like we have capabilities just like before in December,” Hoffmaster said. “The only reason why, again, I’m saying the declaration should be kept in our back pocket is for flexibility, it’s not necessarily that I think we don’t have the capacity or the ability to protect the public and meet in-person.”
The local declaration of emergency has been added to Tuesday’s agenda, and will be considered by commissioners in-person in the commission room of the St. Joseph County Historic Courthouse in Centreville. It was unclear at the conclusion of Wednesday’s executive meeting whether the commission would continue to meet in-person for its meetings beyond next week.
Alek Haak-Frost is executive editor of Watershed Voice.