Traditionally, the first regular Swansboro Board of Commissioners meeting in the month of December is one of celebration.
The usual pre-Christmas meeting, when the Samuel Swann Bland Community Service Award is delivered, features some business but also a full array of snacks prepared by the staff. Thanks to COVID-19, that was not the case this year.
Mayor John Davis took note. Referring to the lack of “reception” items, he said, “When I walked in here today, it was sad.”
The Dec. 14 meeting took place under a hybrid format, with Davis and Commissioner P.J. Pugliese in the town hall community room and Commissioners Laurent Meilleur, Pat Turner and Frank Tursi, participating remotely online through the Zoom platform. Commissioner Larry Philpott did not participate, but his fellow commissioners excused the absence. And business was conducted.
Commissioners voted 4-0 to abandon the hybrid format for meetings in favor of online meeting exclusively.
In the face of rising COVID-19 numbers, commissioners – and staff – believed it was the prudent thing to do.
Tursi called for the item, which he at first thought would be listed, to be added to the agenda.
“I thought that was going to be part of the general discussion,” Tursi said when Davis called for adoption of the agenda items and consent items. “If a separate motion is needed … then I would certainly make that motion.”
“I definitely think that should be a separate item,” Davis. And, with all four commissioners in agreement, it was added.
When the matter came up for discussion, Davis reminded the commissioners that the board made a choice to go with the hybrid format some months ago. Nonetheless, at Tursi’s suggestion, he said, “We are bringing it to the board’s attention again.”
With the number of new COVID-19 cases in North Carolina – and in Onslow County – setting records, meeting in person poses a risk, according to Tursi.
“Considering where we are in the pandemic … we have been identified as one of the hotspots,” he said of the county. “What we decided two months ago may not be … the safest course now.” While the discussion was on town meetings, the issue encompassed more, he said. “We need a whole-town approach.”
Of particular concern, according to Tursi, is the safety of the staff.
“I think its unfair to them to allow them to make decisions of life and death … that is our job,” the commissioner said.
Asked by Davis for an update on how the town staff is functioning under the circumstances, Chris Seaberg, town manager, explained that town hall allows limited access.
“The easy one is restricting town hall,” Seaberg said. “That has already come into play. It has worked out. We are still available in various forms, if not in person. We have protocols when they do come in for an appointment. That has worked out well.”
As far as the town’s official meetings, Seaberg said, “The meetings have worked out fine in the hybrid format.” But, he added, “If the board prefers Zoom, we can do that.”
Davis then asked if staff felt safe under the rules and practices in place.
“No one has expressed any concern,” Seaberg said. And, in response to a question about mask-wearing among staff, Seaberg said, “We have been successful with it.”
Tursi pointed out that the increasing number of new cases is a sign of a problem.
“With all due respect … what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked,” he said. “We are far worse now than when we were completely shut down.
“The actions we’ve taken, have not been very successful. The question is … do we have to do more things to protect the public?”
In March, according to Trusi, the pandemic was kept in check. At that time, the town went into a period of extremely limited public interaction. He indicated it may be time to go back to that.
“We are living in very dangerous times,” he said. “We need to do all we can.”
Tursi questioned the need for parks and recreation to offer in-person programming, something that has been going on – under the governor’s executive order limits – for the past couple of months.
Anna Stanley, director of the Swansboro Parks and Recreation Department, participating by Zoom, said classes and events in the Rec Center are allowed in the large room and are limited to 10 people, including instructors. Social distancing rules are followed and masks are required.
Tursi cast doubt on the need for any in-person events. “If there is not a great demand for it, why do it?” he asked.
Turner expressed concern for the staff.
“I want to speak to the employee part if it,” she said. For an employee working alone in an office, there is little concern, she said. Groups, though, are different. As for the Rec Center sponsoring classes and events, “If we’re losing money with it, I agree with Frank, close it down.”
Meilleur said the department might go about classes and events in a different way.
“I agree with Pat completely,” he said. “Capping a room at nine people … maybe that’s the answer at this time.” But a better way might be to take classes and events online. A virtual class has the potential to reach dozens or even hundreds of people.
Though commissioners suggested eliminating large recreation-sponsored activities, indoors or out, the department was allowed to proceed with programs as planned.
That was not the case with town meetings.
On a question from Davis as to the preference of the staff, Seaberg said, “I think staff recommendation is to go to complete Zoom.”
Tursi said going to Zoom-only meetings would be safer for not only the staff, but also the public.
He pointed out that certain controversial issues currently under discussion – temporary commercial signs for one – have the tendency to bring a lot of citizens to the board meetings.
“If we had had those sign meetings tonight, I suspect we’d have had a lot people there,” Tursi said. “We need to avoid that. We should not be having large groups of people in that room.” As for using a hybrid or a complete Zoom format, Tursi said, “I agree with staff.”
Meilleur was in agreement as well. “It’s an easy call. I agree with staff,” he said.
Turner made it three for three.
“I agree with staff also,” she said.
Pugliese had a question for Seaberg. “By going to a complete Zoom … do you see a way it will hinder the pubic getting an opinion out?”
“We’ll manage it as we can,” Seaberg said.
Cliff Parson, town attorney, participating by Zoom, said the technology exists to allow the public to be heard.
“There are ways you can do it (gather public input) with video,” Parson said.
Tursi proposed a different method for dealing with the more controversial issues.
“I think we all have to understand we are in extraordinary times. The importance here is in the scheduling,” he said. “We can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s going to take a couple of months to reach it, but it’s there.
“It could be we just don’t schedule (controversial) topics … to alleviate much of the problem. Right now, we just want to keep the ship afloat.”
Parson said that would be a wise path to follow.
“I agree with Frank about postponing any events you can,” the attorney said. The board’s options, if that is unavailable, would be to allow comment by telephone or through a message board.
A motion to go to the Zoom format exclusively passed by a 4-0 vote.
Email Jimmy Williams at email@example.com.