Denver City Council will be hosting its first fully virtual meeting on Monday, July 13.
"Following the guidance of Denver’s top health official, city council will be conducting its meetings via a virtual platform,” President Jolon Clark says in announcing the switch. “Virtual participation will allow voices to be heard while allowing for maximum safety in a time of pandemic.”
Clark's decision means that both council reps and members of the public will be able to participate in council meetings virtually — and that includes committees.
The move to fully virtual meetings comes as Denver officials report an increase in the city's COVID-19 positivity rate, which has risen from 3 to 4.5 percent over the last two weeks of citywide testing.
"We are going in the wrong direction, and that is a concern to us," Mayor Michael Hancock said during a July 10 press conference.
On June 29, Clark had decided to cancel that night's meeting out of concern that too many members of the public were attending meetings and not socially distancing, presenting a safety risk. The reasons for that concern had become apparent at the June 22 meeting, when dozens of people packed council chambers, refusing to let council move on to its usual business and instead testifying about such issues as police brutality and defunding the police for two and a half hours.
Some of the organizers who'd been rallying members of the public to speak at council throughout June didn't buy Clark's justification for canceling the June 29 meeting, and argued that council was trying to stifle debate. "They look so small and pathetic," Lillian House, an organizer with the Party for Socialism and Liberation Denver, told Westword.
But Clark has pushed back against those assertions, saying that he understands that assumption "from the outside," but arguing that it's "completely not true."
The July 6 meeting was canceled because of the Fourth of July holiday and the city's furlough days.
The shift to a fully online meeting next week marks a major change in interpretation for how council meetings can be handled.
Early on in the pandemic, Clark and council staffers created a framework that allowed for virtual participation of some council reps at the weekly full-body meetings. Still, legal counsel had advised that the Denver City Charter required that at least seven members, which constitutes a quorum, be present in Denver City Council chambers during a meeting. Additionally, the attorneys told council that, according to the charter, chamber doors had to remain physically open to members of the public to attend meetings and participate when appropriate. That was the only way people could address council; if they tuned in, they could watch but not speak.
The Denver City Charter has not changed. What has is the recommendation from Bob McDonald, executive director of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment. Given the current health crisis, he urged council to go fully virtual, if possible.
"We always kind of were exempted from the public health orders, which would take precedent. This read from Bob McDonald was that we were not exempted if we could not create space for people to safely be in person and that we should be going virtual. It's kind of different in that we fall into that space under the public health order where we didn't necessarily before," explains Clark.
But there have been a few updates in the system. For example, members of the public will now be able to comment over the Zoom platform. For those who have trouble using Zoom or don't have access to a phone or computer, a designated room at the City and County Building will be open, with a dedicated Zoom station so that people can participate there.
And to ensure that the public is heard, council will hold additional virtual listening sessions on Zoom on July 30, August 10 and August 22.
“Councilmembers are committed to creating more opportunities to hear from the public, and these first three listening sessions are just the beginning,” says President Pro Tem Stacie Gilmore, who will likely become council president later this month. “We look forward to working together with the community to expand the opportunity for input, especially as we move into the 2021 budget process.”