Denver City Council Adding Option of Virtual Meeting for Members

Denver City Council is going virtual.
Denver City Council is going virtual. Denver City Council
Denver City Council is officially entering the year 2020.

Today, March 23, council will vote on emergency rules that would allow for members who have possibly been exposed to the coronavirus to phone in to council meetings rather than be present in council chambers.

The policy switch, which should pass unanimously and then take effect when signed by Mayor Michael Hancock, is designed so that council can continue providing "essential government services" and also ensure that meetings remain transparent to members of the public.

Members of the public will still have TV and online access to meetings, according to the proposed rule, and will also be allowed to attend physical meetings.

The rule switch comes as Governor Jared Polis is instructing people to work from home if possible, and also practice social distancing. On March 22, Polis issued an order asking that all companies that aren't considered essential reduce their in-person workforce by at least 50 percent while having the rest work from home. These instructions come after local and statewide stipulations that restaurants and bars shut down in-person service. Gyms and casinos, along with other types of venues, are also closed down statewide.

The virtual-meeting rules, which will apply to weekly council meetings, council committee meetings, and city boards and commissions meetings, will not affect the physical presence requirement for quasi-judicial hearings, including when a re-zoning proposal comes before Denver City Council. In the coming weeks, city staff will explore whether the city has the ability to add a virtual component to quasi-judicial hearings.

Since Hancock has declared a state of emergency through May 11, the new rules will remain in place at least until that date.

Members of Denver City Council — in particular, council president Jolon Clark — have been working over the past week to figure out how to continue meeting in the event that members of council are forced to self-quarantine because of COVID-19 exposure; the current charter calls for in-person meetings.

On March 16, the last full council meeting, only nine out of thirteen members were present. If three more had been absent, then the council would have been unable to meet, since the presence of seven members is required to establish a quorum. All council committee meetings had already been canceled for that week.

Clark had been exploring a possible ordinance change to establish virtual meeting capabilities. But since the legislative counsel from the Denver City Attorney's Office appears to have rejected that idea as not allowed under the city charter, he opted for the emergency rulemaking option.

Other city councils are also moving into the virtual realm.

Aurora City Council, for example, will have a wholly virtual meeting tonight, with members of the public allowed to submit comments for the public-comment period or specific agenda items by calling or emailing the city.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.