Open meetings take backseat to safety
Last updated 3/24/2020 at Noon
For The Record
Public meetings have a new look during the current public health emergency.
Government orders that have basically done away with public gatherings in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, limit any meeting to 10 people or less.
Orange County held its Commissioners’ Court meeting Monday with a limit of 10 people in a room that normally seats about 60. Bridge City Independent School District’s board meeting that night was also limited to 10 people in its boardroom, but it was open to the public via Facebook.
The Orange City Council met Tuesday night and basically held a large conference call hosted by GoToMeeting. A Record newspaper reporter listening in found most of it came across OK, but some was garbled. And this was after he and both city attorneys, Jack Smith and Guy Goodson, were unable to listen in on the first nine minutes of the meeting.
City council members Paul Burch, Mary McKenna and Brad Childs and Mayor Larry Spears joined City Manager Mike Kunst, City Secretary Trisha Anderson, Assistant City Manager Jay Trahan and city IT director Mike Zeto at council chambers at the Orange Public Library.
Burch and McKenna sat at far ends of the seven-person dais with Spears in the middle and Childs seated across from them at the city attorney’s spot, socially distancing at least six feet apart.
The three other council members, Terrie Salter, Caroline Hennigan and Patrick Pullen, were at a remote location as were Smith and Goodson, once they got connected.
The big decision of the night was a vote to amend the city’s disaster pay policy so that it does not automatically go into effect when a disaster is declared. Rather it takes a city council vote to turn on and off the disaster pay spigot.
The intent of the policy, Kunst said, was to ensure city employees who cannot get to work because of a disaster or emergency continue to be paid and that employees who are working due to a disaster or emergency are compensated at the disaster pay rate.
The city’s disaster pay rate is 1.5 times the employee’s normal rate for the hours worked during the disaster or emergency.
Kunst pointed out that while Orange is under a countywide state of disaster as declared by County Judge John Gothia and extended by commissioners’ court Monday, that no city workers had devoted any time to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The council also approved the demolition of the 20-year-old wooden playground structure at Lions Den Park, that has been declared unsafe and is set to be replaced.
Salter reminded Jim Wolf, city public works director, that people had asked about rescuing some of the wood from the structure. Wolf said there are “several of the iconic structures we want to salvage and use as part of landscaping around the new park.”
Todd Lintzen, superintendent of Bridge City schools, said the people attending Monday’s board meeting were also socially distancing themselves – so much so, that the “the cameraman had to pull way out to cover all of us.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has suspended parts of the Texas Open Meeting Law temporarily while battling the pandemic. The biggest one is the chance for public comment at the meetings.
Gothia said Monday that commissioners’ court will still allow public comment, but in the form of written comments that will be read aloud. They can be submitted electronically or in writing.
With only 10 people allowed in the commissioners’ courtroom Monday, the short agenda for the meeting included an official order delaying the state runoff election that was set for May 2, okaying a $10,000 initial payment to a company that would handle 2021 redistricting if needed after the 2020 Census and receipt of the February Auditor’s Financial Report.
The real reason for the meeting on a Monday was to extend the Orange County Disaster Declaration for 30 days. County Judge John Gothia declared the disaster Tuesday, March 17, but it was for a period of only seven days, according to state law. While Gothia, whose elected job makes him the county’s Emergency Management Director, can rescind the declaration by himself, extending it requires a vote by the full commissioners’ court.
The five court members unanimously voted to extend it through April 21, and plan to consider the need to extend it at their next scheduled meeting, at 2 p.m. Tuesday, April 14. Commissioners voted last week to hold meetings every other Tuesday going forward, a decision made unrelated to the coronavirus.
Gothia, commissioners Johnny Trahan, Theresa Beauchamp, Kirk Roccaforte and Robert Viator, County Clerk Brandy Robertson, Sheriff Keith Merritt, Elections Administrator Tina Barrow and a reporter from The Record Newspapers were the only constants in the room.
County Emergency Management Coordinator Joel Ardoin, County Auditor Pennee Schmitt and Assistant County Attorney Denise Gremillion shuttled in and out of the 30-minute meeting but Gremillion stood in a doorway instead of entering the room.