No vodka drinks, please: Walton County to consider reinstating Zoom meetings
DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — Walton County commissioners have directed their staff to develop a policy proposal for continuing the public's access to, and participation in, county government meetings via the interactive Zoom teleconferencing tool.
But at Tuesday's commission meeting where they directed staff to come up with a policy to consider at their July 27 meeting, commissioners made it clear that they prefer seeing constituents face-to-face, and want strict controls on any remote participation in local government meetings.
"I'm not one to have someone ... sitting behind their TV (at home) and drinking their vodka drinks and get brave and come up in front of us by their telephone," said Walton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Trey Nick.
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The county began offering Zoom access to its meetings in April 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic was ramping up. The move has allowed people to continue to have a voice in local government while observing social distancing and other public health protocols instituted to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
In the days since then, even as the coronavirus pandemic has been winding down, Zoom has become a popular tool for public participation. There are a couple of reasons for that, including the dozens of miles that some people must travel across the county to attend meetings in person, along with the fact that many part-time residents who own property in the county live elsewhere but have direct interests in government activities.
'We do need ... to explore it'
The decision to halt Zoom access to meetings was made just days ago by county administrators and Nick without commission input. The move followed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' executive order invalidating any local emergency orders, based on his determination that such orders are "not narrowly tailored to serve a public health or safety purpose and unnecessarily restrict individual rights and liberties."
Without the emergency status formerly afforded to offering Zoom access to county government meetings, the county has no other policy to allow the practice, Walton County Administrator Larry Jones told commissioners Tuesday.
But in the few days since the county announced that it would halt Zoom access to public meetings, many people have indicated they wanted to retain the ability to participate remotely.
A handful of government meetings for which Zoom access already has been advertised will continue to be available for remote participation, but absent any action from the commission at its July 27 meeting, Zoom access will end at the end of the month.
"I guess I'm sort of old-fashioned, and would prefer to see people in person," Commissioner Danny Glidewell said before the commission directed the staff to develop a proposal to continue remote access to meetings.
"However," Glidewell continued, "I do recognize that times are changing, so in the interest of transparency and in the interest of accommodating the public, I would ask that the staff bring back a policy at the next meeting. ... I think we do need to at least explore it."
"I like that face-to-face, too," Commissioner William "Boots" McCormick said before noting that "we have a lot of folks who are shut-ins, and this (Zoom access) is a valuable tool for them to keep up with what's going on with county business."
But like Nick, McCormick said that "there has to be a decorum to it (remote participation in public meetings). For me to vote on going back to Zoom, I would have to see a very strict policy on that, just like we would uphold in this room here."
"I'd rather see people in person as well," said Commissioner Mike Barker, who added that if remote access is allowed, "We need some clear rules and a way to enforce those rules, however that may be."
'It's a pain, it really is'
Commissioner Tony Anderson, while supportive of the more transparency afforded by remote meeting access, talked briefly about the shortcomings of Zoom and similar digital tools.
"It's a pain, it really is," Anderson said. "It's very difficult to hear. It's very difficult to judge really what's going on."
"I'm not a tech guy," he continued, "so I'm pretty much against anything tech-wise, but I do agree with my fellow commissioners that we need more transparency, not less transparency."
Even with a policy change that allows remote access to county government meetings to continue, there still will be circumstances when people wanting to be heard on some issues will have to show up in person to participate.
That requirement for in-person attendance will apply to any "quasi-judicial" matters considered by the County Commission or other county government entities. Quasi-judicial matters routinely involve zoning and land use decisions, and require interested parties to be sworn in before participating.
"We can't swear people in remotely," interim county counsel Clay Adkinson told commissioners Tuesday, "and certainly you can't swear someone in over the phone."
Absent any state legislative action or state Supreme Court action to the contrary, Adkinson said, "We would never be able to include that (remote participation) in a quasi-judicial proceeding.”