Faced with the increasing spread of the coronavirus, Denver City Council will consider new rules that would allow the council president to cancel a full-body meeting during an emergency.
"It’s a small thing, but we’re just trying to think through all the various possible scenarios," explains Jolon Clark, Denver City Council president, who adds that council rules never contemplated this type of disease-outbreak scenario.
While seemingly minor, the move to allow the council president to cancel meetings in advance shows the high level of concern among Denver's elected officials about the current situation. "Unlike other legislative branches of government, we meet year-round. We don’t have a recess. Because of that, our system is built more around us being a critical piece of government continuing to operate," says Clark.
For example, while city contracts can pass without council approval about a month and a half after the contract bill has been filed, ordinances cannot pass without approval by council. So canceling multiple weekly meetings could significantly delay governmental operations.
Currently, the council president has authority to cancel council committee meetings, which Clark has already done for this week, and also cancel the public-comment session before the full Monday meeting, another action taken by Clark. Additionally, council is postponing two public hearings scheduled for today.
But right now, the only way for Denver City Council to cancel its regular Monday meeting is to vote on it. This has happened occasionally in the past decade, when councilmembers recognized that fewer than seven reps would be present, the number necessary to establish a quorum.
The rule change that council is considering tonight would allow the council president to cancel the Monday meetings in advance, in case a majority of the councilmembers contract the coronavirus or have to self-quarantine. That way, the council secretary and members not sick or quarantined wouldn't have to come in to simply acknowledge that not enough members are present and then adjourn.
Members will take a final vote on the proposal next week.
As of now, Colorado has 131 confirmed coronavirus or COVID-19 cases, 24 of them in Denver.
But even though council will consider putting a provision in place that would allow Clark to cancel meetings, the council president still expects Monday meetings to continue for the time being.
"We're going to take it week by week and day by day," Clark says.
And the meetings will definitely have to happen in person, rather than virtually.
"Right now, our rules don't allow councilmembers to participate in meetings without being present," says Stacy Simonet, communications director for Denver City Council.
Other city councils in Colorado are adopting emergency rules that allow virtual meetings, which are legal under state law, according to the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. But for now, Denver is just going to introduce a proposal to allow canceling a meeting in advance.
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"We probably will not come up with a solution in time for this particular crisis," Simonet says of virtual meetings. "I think that they may come up with some provisions that might allow councilmembers to call in, even if we have a skeleton quorum."
While council is dealing with these unprecedented issues, the full Monday Denver City Council meetings will remain open to the public.
"Part of our open-meetings rules is that we cannot restrict people from coming into the chambers," says Clark. Still, he recommends that people who don't have some specific reason for attending a meeting watch the proceedings on TV or online.
Denver is currently under a state of emergency order from Mayor Michael Hancock, who's also limited events to no more than fifty people and ordered bars and restaurants to shut down sit-down service through May 11. They will still be allowed to offer drive-through, delivery and takeout services.