St. Paul City Council members held their last in-person meeting for the foreseeable future on Wednesday, leaving empty seats between them at the council dais to preserve 6 feet of separation.

“We’re in the midst of a pandemic, where the only way we can slow it is by not being close to each other,” said Council Member Chris Tolbert.

Typically bustling with elected officials, government staffers and members of the public, City Halls across the state are going quiet as leaders opt to meet remotely and urge their constituents to stay home to protect against the spread of COVID-19.

After their regular meeting, most St. Paul council members walked down the hall to another room for training on video conference calls — how they will conduct public meetings going forward. Council President Amy Brendmoen and a few staff members stayed behind in the council chambers and waited for video and audio to be patched through.

After some trial and error, everyone got their laptops working. After completing a practice roll-call, they cheered.

“It’s imperfect but it’s pretty darn cool, to tell you the truth,” Brendmoen said.

Minnesota’s open-meeting law, which requires government meetings to be open to the public, allows meetings to be held by phone or other electronic means in the event of a health pandemic.

For the first part of the week, Minneapolis City Council meetings happened as usual, except that council members sat farther apart and fewer people were in the audience. On Thursday, council members will be able to participate remotely.

The city has postponed advisory committee meetings scheduled through mid-April as part of an effort to encourage social distancing. That timeline could be extended depending on how the virus spreads, according to City Clerk Casey Carl.

Minneapolis Park Board commissioners and staff planned to call in to their Wednesday evening meeting.

St. Paul is postponing public hearings that are expected to draw a crowd, including a controversial tenant-protection ordinance rescheduled for May 20. Officials are figuring out a process for other hearings.

“If there are items that appear to be larger-scale that can be pushed down the road, we’ll do that,” Brendmoen said. “Trying to manage even 10 people at a public hearing is different than having one person be able to phone in and share their perspective on a zoning matter or something that’s not controversial.”

In Duluth, where City Hall is closed to the public, council members will be able to call in to upcoming meetings and public comments will be taken by e-mail. In Golden Valley, where council members met by video conference call for the first time Tuesday, residents are able to call in for public hearings.

Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris said the council had a light agenda — and only one resident called in to testify — but the meeting still lasted 45 minutes. “We just have to be patient and realize that all of these items are going to take longer,” he said.

 

Staff writers Liz Navratil, Miguel Otárola, Katie Galioto and Mara Klecker contributed to this report.