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Crow Wing County readying to reopen doors, will continue livestreams and teleconferencing

Commissioners on Tuesday, May 11, expressed a desire to continue offering this expanded access as in-person meeting attendance will once again be permitted.

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Commissioners Bill Brekken, Paul Koering and Steve Barrows participate in a Tuesday, May 11, 2021, Crow Wing County Board meeting.

As Crow Wing County prepares to unlock its campus doors for public access Monday, May 17, expanded digital access to county board meetings established amid the pandemic will continue indefinitely.

Before COVID-19 forced county government officials to adapt to a socially distanced environment, the regular bimonthly meeting of commissioners was available via livestream on the county’s website and past recordings were stored. Other meetings typically involving most or all commissioners, however, were neither recorded nor livestreamed, including the monthly committee of the whole, budget and personnel committee meetings.

When restrictions on in-person access to county facilities and meetings first occurred in March 2020, a public emergency declaration included a requirement to livestream regular board meetings as well as meetings of the planning commission/board of adjustment. Those options expanded to include livestreaming on YouTube and making virtual participation available via Microsoft Teams videoconferencing software. Two of the board’s committee meetings, once only available by in-person attendance, are now accessible live and after the fact, including committee of the whole and budget committee.

Commissioners on Tuesday, May 11, expressed a desire to continue offering this expanded access as in-person meeting attendance will once again be permitted. County Administrator Tim Houle said he feels the use of the Teams software was a good addition to how the board does its business. People can participate via video technology or by calling in, including offering comments during open forum.

RELATED: County services to go all virtual, buildings to close to public again At Thursday’s meeting, the county administrator shared data showing the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases in the county. He noted in one week’s time, there were 560 new cases in the county, which accounts for nearly 28% of all the confirmed cases recorded among county residents since March. He pointed to the impacts of this rise throughout many sectors of the community, including school districts and hospitals.
“I think it’s turned out to be a good way for people who aren’t close to here, if they want to participate in our meetings,” Houle said. “We have a lot of folks who own property here living in the Twin Cities, so I think it makes good sense.”

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Commissioner Paul Koering added it’s a way for staff members to listen in on the meeting without having to be physically present.

“I’ve seen staff sit here for an hour or two where they could be back in their office,” Koering said. “So I think for staff wise, I think it’s a great deal.”

Commissioners also discussed whether to return to the smaller Jinx Ferrari Room for committee of the whole and budget committee meetings. Pre-pandemic, the space played host to the more informal meetings intended to inspire conversation among commissioners and presenters without any official decisions made. Those meetings moved to the third-floor boardroom because of the technology needs associated with livestreaming.

Koering said he’d prefer the meetings remain in the full boardroom.

“Somebody might say, ‘Well there’s not that many people watch it.’ But they have an opportunity to watch it,” Koering said. “If it’s recorded and it’s on YouTube or on our website, they can go back and they can watch that if they want. … This isn’t like city government where you go to the meeting at 7 o’clock at night when you’re done with work. A lot of people aren’t able to come here at 9 o’clock in the morning because they’re at work.”

RELATED: Crow Wing County to unlock doors of land services building The land services building serves as the primary customer service counter for a variety of matters, including environmental permitting, water planning and forest management, property valuation and taxes, document recording, land sales and vital records. Those who choose to conduct business with the county in person will still be required to adhere to other COVID-19 safety protocols, including wearing masks and social distancing.
Commissioner Rosemary Franzen added the same applies in those cases for people who work nights.

Chairman Steve Barrows said he’d like to see the committee meetings moved back to a smaller room.

“I will simply say that I believe that this room is so formal that there tends to not be a robust discussion as there is when we have the roundtable discussions in the Jinx Ferrari Room,” Barrows said, suggesting those meetings move to the larger Oak Room in the Land Services Building to accommodate social distancing.

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Therese Norwood, administrative coordinator for the county administrator’s office, explained livestreaming from that space would not be possible. The meetings could be recorded and posted, however, Norwood said.

“My opinion is if we want to do livestreaming for everything we just stay here, because if we go to the other places it makes more work for Therese, and I don’t think that’s necessary,” Franzen said.

No motions were made, but Houle indicated he had the board consensus he needed to move forward on these details.

Those attending meetings in person — as well as those seeking services in or entering county buildings for any reason — will be required to abide by state mandates in place concerning face masks and social distancing.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .
Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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