No comment? Pandemic provides challenges for Carmel residents to stay informed, engaged with local government   

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Since co-founding Carmel Citizens for Responsible Zoning in 2011, Jill Meisenheimer was a regular fixture at public meetings when development was on the agenda. She often gave her opinion during public hearings, tailoring her comments to be as impactful as possible within the allotted few minutes to speak.

But since the COVID-19 pandemic swept across Indiana beginning in March 2020, Meisenheimer hasn’t been back to City Hall. At 73, she doesn’t feel safe venturing to public meetings, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to make her voice heard.

The trouble is, she’s not quite sure the best way to do that.

“Everyone (conducts meetings) differently, even within City Hall,” she said. “I think it’s really frustrating.”

All local government meetings went fully virtual in the spring after Gov. Eric Holcomb signed an executive order allowing them to occur that way. But as the state began reopening, governing bodies began holding meetings in different ways. In Carmel, the city council and Carmel Clay Schools Board of Trustees meet in-person with limited attendance; the Carmel Clay Parks & Recreation board meets virtually; and at least one council committee is offering in-person and virtual attendance.

Meetings held in person look different, too. All have greatly reduced capacity to allow for social distancing, but mask-wearing and other COVID-19 prevention measures differ from place to place.

The pandemic has been frustrating for officials, too.

At-large Carmel City Councilor Jeff Worrell said he’s had to get creative to ensure he’s connecting with constituents.

“It’s making it very difficult,” Worrell said. “We have to take some extra steps to make sure that I can hear from the public, number one, but that the public has the opportunity to speak their mind.”

Worrell hosted his inaugural virtual town hall meeting Feb. 11. He was joined by Mayor Jim Brainard and City Engineer Jeremy Kashman to provide updates and answer questions from Carmel residents. Previously, he held town hall meetings in-person.

As chair of the council’s finance committee, Worrell presided Jan. 27 over the first city meeting open to comments from those attending in-person and online. Several residents registered ahead of time and watched in a virtual meeting room, although none decided to comment when it was their turn. At a subsequent meeting Feb. 4, a virtual attendee did choose to speak.

Worrell said he took a risk in trying it out, but it was one he believes was worth taking.

“Right now, I think erring on the side of giving people the opportunity (to speak) is the right thing to do,” he said.

Worrell plans to continue accepting in-person and virtual comments at some finance committee meetings, but it’s not something he’s required to do, even without a pandemic. State law requires public hearings for certain matters, such as rezones and certain budget discussions, but otherwise a time for public comment is not mandated.

Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt, whose role includes preserving access rights of the public, said he encourages government bodies to set aside time for public comment, and in Carmel, for the most part, they do. He said he’s seen governments get creative in gathering public comment during a time people are encouraged to stay home.

“I’ve got a handful of complaints over the past year about this kind of stuff, but it seems like everybody has overcome the learning curve,” he said.

Britt said he was concerned about the potential impact of municipalities closing their doors early in the pandemic for safety reasons, so he reached out to the governor’s office to express support for allowing virtual meetings that the public could view. Holcomb legalized it in one of his first executive orders relating to the pandemic.

Now, state legislators are considering a bill that would make some of those changes permanent by allowing virtual meetings during emergencies and disasters and allowing board members or councilors to vote remotely.

Worrell believes some of the changes could be helpful beyond the pandemic, but he’s eager to see public meetings return to normal.

“We don’t want to turn this into a system where we never see anybody anymore, we don’t know who we’re talking to and we don’t get that face-to-face interaction,” he said.

Another change that’s likely to be kept is livestreams of city meetings that previously were only available to watch in-person.

“Especially those (council) committee meetings where the sausage is being made, I think that access is much better now,” city councilor Tim Hannon said. “I think that’s a good thing.”

Monitoring the mask mandate

Government entities choosing to conduct public meetings in person are handling pandemic restrictions in different ways.

In Carmel Clay Schools, for example, meeting participants almost always don a mask, while participants at meetings in Carmel City Hall do not always wear them on the dais.

Everyone entering Carmel City Hall must wear a mask, but not all councilors do once the meeting has begun. City spokesman Dan McFeely pointed to the governor’s mask mandate providing an exception for “any person while giving a speech for a broadcast or to an audience if the person can maintain 6 feet of social distancing from another person not in the same household.”

The seats on the dais are not quite 6 feet apart, McFeely said, which is why the city installed clear barriers between them.

He said masks often made it difficult for broadcast audiences to hear or understand the speaker.

“The council members and, really, all public board members, are trying very carefully to balance safety with transparency and access for those who want to watch meetings at home,” McFeely said. “If they cannot be understood with masks on, then the extra effort and expense of broadcasting our meetings are not helpful.”

Other steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at City Hall include the installation of ionization devices to clean the air and limiting attendance in council chambers.

The Carmel Clay Schools Board of Trustees requires everyone in the room to wear masks at all times, only making an exception for the speaker if that person can remain socially distanced. Most speakers still choose to wear a mask.

CCS officials are taking steps before each meeting to ensure they can be conducted as safely as possible.

“Before each meeting, we discuss agenda items and expected attendance,” said Emily Bauer, CCS director of community relations. “Unfortunately, we have had to cancel recognitions or celebrate groups virtually. Recently, we held public meetings for redistricting in the high school auditorium to allow more community members to attend while maintaining social distancing.”

Bauer said anyone can contact school board members at any time through email.

Governmental body When does it meet? Where? Meeting type during pandemic? Opportunity for public comment? How to watch online
Carmel City Council 6 p.m., first and third Mondays of the month Carmel City Hall, 1 Civic Square In person Yes Livestreamed on city’s Facebook page and television channel
Carmel Clay Schools board 7 p.m., fourth Monday of month (work session at 7 p.m .second Monday of month) Educational Services Center, 5201 E. Main St. In person Yes, at regular meetings (not work sessions) Posted on CCS YouTube channel after meeting
Carmel Plan Commission 6 p.m. third Tuesday of month Carmel City Hall, 1 Civic Square In person No (except for public hearings) Livestreamed on city’s Facebook page and television channel
Plan commission committees 6 p.m., first Tuesday of month Carmel City Hall, 1 Civic Square Virtual No (except for special circumstances) Livestreamed Carmelspeaks.org and committee Facebook pages
Carmel Board of Zoning Appeals 6 p.m., fourth Monday of month Carmel City Hall, 1 Civic Square Virtual No (except for public hearings) Livestreamed at carmelin.new.swagit.com/views/1
Carmel Clay Parks & Recreation board 6 p.m., second Tuesday of month Monon Community Center East, 1235 Central Park Drive East In person (at Carmel City Hall) Yes Posted after meeting at vimeo.com/channels/parkboardmeetings
City council finance committee As needed Carmel City Hall, 1 Civic Square In person At discretion of committee chair Livestreamed on city’s Facebook page and television channel
City council land use committee As needed Carmel City Hall, 1 Civic Square In person At discretion of committee chair Livestreamed on city’s Facebook page and television channel
Board of Public Works 10 a.m., first and third Wednesdays of month Carmel City Hall, 1 Civic Square Virtual No Livestreamed on city’s Facebook page and television channel
Carmel Redevelopment Commission 6:30 p.m., third Wednesday of month Carmel City Hall, 1 Civic Square Virtual At discretion of CRC Livestreamed on city’s Facebook page and television channel

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