Prov. City Council meets by unusual conference call to approve coronavirus measures

Providence

Council President Sabina Matos uses video conferencing for Thursday’s City Council meeting.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — In what may become the new normal in Rhode Island, the Providence City Council became the first public body to meet by video conference since Gov. Gina Raimondo lifted certain parts of the state’s Open Meetings Act due to COVID-19.

All 14 sitting City Council members attended the meeting held on the Zoom calling platform. Most joined by phone, while a few utilized web cameras.

The council unanimously approved two executive orders signed by Mayor Jorge Elorza in the past week outlining strict measures in the capital city to contain the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The first order, signed by Elorza last week, pulled all event permits and entertainment licenses in the city, and limited other businesses to 100 people or fewer inside bars and restaurants.

By Monday, Elorza was signing a much more strict order: banning all dine-in services at restaurants, closing Providence Place mall, and banning gatherings of more than 25 people within the bounds of the city.

The council voted to extend both orders to March 30, and is expected to meet again on that date to determine whether to extend them further. There was no discussion on the items during the conference call.

The council also voted — again, without any discussion — to approve an updated speed camera contract with vendor Conduent that was negotiated late last year.

Aside from the occasional accidental muting or unmuting of a councilperson’s microphone, the 20-minute call went smoothly. In total, 44 people were on the call — including the council members, their staff, reporters, and members of the public.

Normally, a majority of council members are not allowed to have a group discussion remotely, whether by phone, video call or email. Any time a quorum of the council is meeting, state law requires it be done in person, open to the public, and with two days’ notice of the items on the agenda.

But Raimondo’s lifting of the remote participation ban has left public bodies seeking other solutions to avoid meeting in person during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most other Providence bodies — including the Board of Licenses and council committees — chose to cancel their meetings this week.

The City Council initially planned to still meet in person, but was going to bar the public and reporters from the meeting in order to comply with the Health Department guidance to limit gatherings to fewer than 25 people.

Amid backlash from advocates, the council later agreed to allow three pool reporters into the meeting. But before it even happened, the in-person meeting was scrapped and moved to the Zoom platform.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Council President Sabina Matos said she would look to state officials and Raimondo for advice on whether the emergency closures should continue beyond March 30.

“I think at a moment like this it’s important for us to be a united front,” Matos said, also criticizing President Donald Trump for his response so far. “The president should be communicating what we should be doing to all the states. Unfortunately we’re not getting a unified message … the governors are taking the lead.”

For the time being, the council is not scheduling committee meetings, which usually involve hours-long discussions and testimony that might be more difficult on a conference call than a regular council meeting, where there is no public comment or testimony.

The Finance Committee typically meets frequently after Elorza submits his budget proposal to the council in April. There is also a special commission currently studying a progressive tax structure, which is supposed to make recommendations for the upcoming budget. The group has met four times.

“This is a new normal right now,” Matos said. “We don’t know for how long we are going to have to do it this way.”

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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