Officials adjusting meetings to comply with health order
March 25, 2020
CLOVIS — Just two weeks ago, you risked getting laughed out of the room if you called the average public meeting a mass gathering.
How things have changed with the COVID-19 pandemic. In the latest effort to slow the virus’ spread, a Monday New Mexico Department of Health order has limited mass gatherings to five people through April 10.
There will be issues moving ahead for public meetings, an anchor of local government transparency. For instance, the Clovis city commission and Portales City Council are each comprised of nine people, and five are needed to make a quorum at a public meeting.
Clearly, there are issues moving forward as local government bodies try to balance between keeping people safe from a virus spread while still doing business as transparently as possible.
Thursday’s Clovis commission meeting, rescheduled from April 19 when public health orders were still coming in a flurry, will be one of the early tests. The meeting will be held at the North Annex of the Clovis-Carver Public Library as always, but the annex will be closed to the public.
The meeting will be available on the city’s Facebook page, Suddenlink public access channel 10 and online at:
Anybody with questions or comments during the meeting can call 575-762-9200, which rings to the information technology room.
City Manager Justin Howalt had to work Monday to be able to count on one hand a guest list that normally includes 16 city representatives:
• eight commissioners, plus the mayor
• the city manager and assistant city manager
• the city clerk and assistant city clerk
• the city attorney
• at least two information technology employees who operate the livestream and other items like microphones and tablets for votes.
That doesn’t count other department heads who may attend for a specific agenda item or general public availability, or audience members attending for any reason.
Howalt said the Thursday meeting will include Mayor David Lansford, two IT employees, himself and Assistant City Manager Claire Burroughes, with every other party calling in.
“We’ll maintain those safe social distancing measures,” Howalt said Monday before the tighter restrictions were announced. “We’re still trying to keep our employees and elected officials safe and adhere to the guidance that has been provided, but still make the obligations of the Open Meetings Act from a logistical and legal standpoint.”
The Portales City Council scratched a special meeting Tuesday night to discuss implementing a gross receipts tax increase to help offset the phase-out of hold harmless — a process by which the state reimbursed municipalities for lost GRT from the exemption of groceries and medicine.
When the council meets again, it will have to implement some teleconferencing between eight councilors, the mayor, the city manager and the city clerk.
On Friday, the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority posted the agenda for its 3 p.m. Thursday meeting and encouraged any board member to call in to keep the numbers below 10. Tuesday morning Authority Administrator Orlando Ortega said he, Chairman Lansford and Office Manager Haleigh Marez would be the only in-person participants.
Anybody wishing to attend via conference call should first call 716-293-9726, then at the prompt dial 605-472-5736, then enter access code 716009.
The Curry County Commission will have a telephonic meeting at 9 a.m. Friday. The Gidding Street administration building that normally houses the meeting will be staffed only by County IT Director Todd Ulses.
County Manager Lance Pyle said anybody with a question on the meeting items or anybody who wishes to speak during the meeting should email him at [email protected] to get information and a Friday call-in number.
The meeting will not have a livestream, but audio will be posted following the conclusion of the meeting at:
The Eastern New Mexico University Board of Regents has met twice since what could be considered the national tipping point of March 11, when the NBA suspended its season minutes after a positive player test.
Student Regent Joseph Gergel was the only regent to attend both of the last two meetings in person. The first one was a regular meeting March 13 in Ruidoso, and the second was a special telephonic meeting with only the postponement of spring commencement on the agenda.
Gergel said at the March 13 meeting, COVID-19 was certainly something on everybody’s mind, “then everything moved so quick with the virus. It’s been difficult coordinating everything, while trying to stay within the bounds of the Open Meetings Act.”
A week later, he was sitting alone at the regents table that normally seats himself, four other regents and Chancellor Jeff Elwell. The others called in, and the regents room was limited to him, an administrative assistant who records meeting minutes, Police Chief Brad Mauldin and a few vice presidents.
“What felt different was the importance of that agenda item,” said Gergel, part of the 5-0 vote that postponed his own graduation service. “Usually when we have a telephonic meeting, it’s a smaller item for branch campuses before they head to the higher ed department.”
The regents are next scheduled to meet April 10, and he wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the lone regent present for that meeting too.
“It’s an interesting situation we’re all in,” Gergel said. “Eastern’s pretty much closed down to the public. I usually like to be on campus a lot as a student regent just to interact, so that will be a new change. I’m wondering how I reach out to the students like I used to.”
On March 17, Clovis city officials decided to cancel all lower board meetings through March 30, a decision that is all but guaranteed to continue through April 10. Howalt didn’t anticipate problems, as those bodies are largely advisory panels for business the commission eventually handles anyway.