Aspen officials attempt to do the public’s business in a virtual world

by Carolyn Sackariason for The Aspen Times Weekly

The mundane government meetings that civically minded Roaring Fork Valley residents had endured pre-pandemic have turned into a virtual buffet of technological and public comment challenges, and a glimpse into the personal spaces of public officials who have conducted business from their bedrooms, patios, living rooms, kitchens and even their treadmills for the past three months.

Welcome to the COVID-19 virtual meeting world, where the phrase “can you hear me now?” has been resurrected from its mobile phone advertising slogan days.

At virtually every government meeting throughout the Roaring Fork Valley that shifted to platforms like Zoom and Cisco WebEx in mid-March, participants have fumbled with their mute buttons, internet connections and hand-raising abilities, to name a few glitches.

Whether it’s elected officials, government staffers or presenters, it’s taken some time to get used to conducting public business from their private spaces.

At an April Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority board meeting, an applicant for a hearing officer position hadn’t muted her computer and was heard shouting to her husband about whether he wanted soup for dinner.

And often elected officials forget to hit the mute button before taking a phone call so all participants hear the conversation.

There have been some light moments too, like when the Basalt mayor’s cat walks across his desk, or a staffer’s inquisitive youngsters check out the camera and the golden lab occasionally wanders into the room.

The virtual platform has made informal what is typically a formal government meeting. Take a recent Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority board meeting in which City Councilwoman Rachel Richards, an alternate housing board member, laid in her bed during the session and City Councilman Skippy Mesirow, the voting board member, strolled on his treadmill on his outdoor porch while gazing at the sky. Meanwhile, government critic Lee Mulcahy — who is being evicted from his deed-restricted house in Burlingame Ranch — held a sign that said “APCHA you are killing us.”

All of it can be distracting, officials have acknowledged, but it is what it is in this COVID-19 world where public health orders forbid gatherings and mandate people stay 6 feet apart from one another to slow the spread of the virus.

“I don’t think our conversations are as efficient and effective,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper. “It takes a lot of energy to focus on the technology and everything so it’s pretty exhausting.

“I’m really looking forward to being in the same room again, social distancing, of course.”

When that will be depends on public health orders and each entity’s ability to open their buildings.

The town of Snowmass Village appears to be ahead of its governmental counterparts in that the mayor, one council member, the town attorney and manager, along with an Aspen Times reporter, have physically met in council chambers during virtual public meetings since March.

Aspen City Manager Sara Ott told City Council members at their June 23 meeting that she’d like to have a conversation about reopening City Hall and conducting meetings in a public space after July 1.

But because of constraints in City Hall, going back to in-person council meetings presents a challenge.

“We have some real limitations with council chambers,” Ott told The Aspen Times prior to the meeting. “We’re looking at alternative venues.”

Councilwoman Ann Mullins said she’d like to get back to City Hall and meet in person with her colleagues and citizens.

“It’s putting a big barrier between ourselves and the public,” she said. “Our conversation is not as dynamic; I like sitting down face to face.”

But just as others in her role, Mullins admits there are some upsides to meeting virtually.

“It can be extremely efficient,” she said. “I appreciate the fact that it’s controlled and contained.”

That has a lot to do with the facilitator, or the host of the meeting.

In the case of City Council, Mayor Torre fulfills that role.

He said with the help of the city’s IT department, he was able to figure out the technical aspects quite quickly, but moving the conversation has been challenging.

“When you are in the same room you have the eye contact and body language and conversant dialogue,” Torre said. “But one of the positives is it’s allowing people to participate without being there.”

There are fewer people making public comment, and the regular gadflies who would ceremoniously come down to City Hall to air their grievances and thoughts on particular issues are not showing up in the virtual realm.

The city takes public comment via phone or email. Participants are asked to provide notice 15 minutes prior to the meeting.

Those are the rules set by council March 12 when it amended regulations for meetings during times of an emergency, which had been declared days before when the first coronavirus outbreak occurred.

City Attorney Jim True said at first many officials around Colorado thought virtual meetings at today’s level couldn’t be done.

“The whole state was dealing with it and it was difficult,” he said. “But I do think it is going well … we haven’t had any significant complaints.”

Toni Kronberg, a longtime and well-known government critic who regularly attends council meetings, said she has had problems trying to make effective public comment.

She got cut off when presenting her aerial transit connection ideas at the Elected Officials Transportation Committee meeting in April because those in charge of the meeting counted time against her during her three-minute allotment.

She had planned it to just three minutes but because she didn’t have access to a computer with a camera, Kronberg said she was limited to reading her presentation on the phone and relying on a staffer to change slides on the screen at her prompting, which took longer.

“Next thing I was clicked off,” she said. “I was livid.”

She also has felt stifled in recent weeks when it comes to the city of Aspen’s new office building, the town of Snowmass’ review of the redevelopment of Snowmass Town Center and pool in the town of Basalt.

Kronberg said it’s difficult to interact with elected officials and make eye contact in order for her point to resonate with them.

“Public comment is pretty much shut down,” she said.

Aspen City Council members said they’ve heard plenty from Kronberg during the pandemic, both in emails and phone calls.

Public comment is not required under the Colorado Open Meetings law but most governing bodies deem it as a necessity and have tried to accommodate it in electronic meetings, according to Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

He said that he has heard reports of people having difficulty making public comment in the virtual format.

“I hope once we are through this, an in-person meeting that is live streamed and archived is the best way to go,” Roberts said. “I don’t think there is anything that replaces a person addressing a governing body.”

The Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority board meetings were not televised or regularly live streamed online prior to COVID-19 but because of the virtual platform, the public now has access to watch them in real time.

Torre said at the last council meeting that if anyone is having trouble or is feeling hesitant about making public comment they should reach out to a council member.

“We’ll make sure that we can take as much as public comment as we can here,” he said.

Virtual meetings also have allowed elected officials to not have to travel across the country to meet with congressional leaders in Washington, D.C.

Mullins, as a board member of RFTA, along with other transportation officials, were scheduled to travel to Washington earlier this month to lobby U.S. Sens. Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet and Congressman Scott Tipton on some transportation grants.

But they met virtually instead and “it might have been more effective,” Mullins said.

On a more local level, Mullins said there is nothing to replace looking people in the eyes and having a more impromptu conversation with fellow council members, staff and members of the public.

She added that she’s spending an inordinate amount of time on the computer as she represents the city in various board meetings — some days as much as eight hours.

“That’s a lot of computer screen time and you are on camera the whole time,” she said.

Torre estimated earlier this month that he has been in 150 virtual meetings since mid-March.

“With the crisis going on, the amount of meetings we have been having is a lot of communication with a lot of people,” he said. “As the world becomes more technological this is an evolution with meeting space, but I am looking forward to getting back in the same room with everyone.”