Most city councils around the metro area are meeting remotely during the pandemic, via video or phone conferencing. But meetings aren’t mandatory — and some cities, like Brooklyn Center, are opting out altogether.

“Because we didn’t have the technological capabilities established at the time and because having in-person meetings would have been detrimental to the public health, we thought it was critical to cancel those meetings,” Mayor Mike Elliott said.

Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order last month gave cities the authority to meet during the pandemic by phone or electronic means such as video apps Zoom and Skype. Before the order, that was an option that could be invoked only by cities experiencing a natural disaster such as a flood or tornado.

Governing boards may still meet in person, as long as they practice social distancing. The Anoka County Board holds meetings in person that are livestreamed online, with commissioners sitting farther apart than usual.

Research manager Amber Eisenschenk of the League of Minnesota Cities said most cities in the state are meeting remotely. The league provides guidelines for city officials on how to conduct teleconference meetings on its website, though she said councils aren’t being told they have to meet.

“Cities haven’t been using this widespread,” Eisenschenk said. “You had to have an emergency or health pandemic to use the telephone meeting option. It’s not something that we practiced before. Most have not been in a position to use this before.”

There are rules around remote meetings: A city official must be in the council chambers for a public meeting using interactive TV, though not with the phone meetings being used now. To comply with state open meeting laws, cities that have the technology must allow the public to monitor the meeting remotely.

The city must also provide instructions, web links and necessary access codes to the public, typically on its website. It’s up to each city to decide whether to include a remote public comment period.

Cities holding virtual meetings include Bloomington, Brooklyn Park, Champlin, Eden Prairie, Edina, Golden Valley, Hopkins, Plymouth, Richfield and St. Louis Park.

Larger cities with more technology were able to make the transition from in-person to remote meetings smoothly, but it wasn’t so seamless for others, Eisenschenk said. “A lot of cities are scared to do a conference call because they’ve never done it before,” she said.

Elliott said that without any critical or pressing matters on April’s agendas, Brooklyn Center officials decided to postpone City Council meetings until they get the technology to do it remotely. The first council meeting is slated for May 11, when council members will attend via video and telephone, he said. The public will be able to watch on the city’s website.

 

Staff writer David Chanen contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version incorrectly said a city official must be in the City Council chambers for all public meetings held remotely.