After nearly six months of meetings the public could not attend in person, the Crow Wing County Board voted Tuesday, Sept. 8, to reopen its doors.

The 4-1 decision means in-person attendance will be permitted immediately at all regular county board meetings as well as committee meetings over which the county board has purview. Those in attendance will be expected to follow social distancing guidelines and the state mandate requiring masks in indoor spaces.

The motion was brought forward by Commissioner Paul Koering, who said he was concerned about the public’s access to address the board. Koering pointed to a recent directive from County Administrator Tim Houle, who said letters written with the intent of them being shared during open forum would no longer be read aloud during the meeting. Instead, Houle indicated open forum comments — which must concern items not on the county board agenda — would be accepted virtually through Microsoft Teams.

“If you remember, we did approve a lot of grant money for high-speed internet,” Koering said, referencing the board’s recent approval to distribute some of its federal coronavirus relief funding to be used for broadband expansion projects. “There’s a lot of people that I don’t know they have the capability to do the Microsoft Teams and I’m just concerned that they don’t have the ability to address the board.”

Chairman Steve Barrows noted people may also call in to participate in board meetings.

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“There is two methods for them to be participating in our board meetings,” Barrows said. “I don’t want the idea that it’s only the Teams, because that is kind of a restrictive issue for some of the more rural areas.”

Therese Norwood, administrative coordinator, clarified both video participation or call-in participation occur through the Teams software.

“You don’t have to have high-speed internet or any internet to join by Teams,” Norwood said. “You can call into Teams.”

Commissioner Rosemary Franzen seconded the motion, adding she’d like to see 6-foot distancing requirements included. Commissioner Bill Brekken asked Houle for input on managing the process for allowing the public to attend again.

“I think it’s a fair question,” Houle said. “You’re going to have to wrestle with when is the right time to do that.”

Houle said the risk factors commissioners should consider include how close people are to one another, how long they’re sharing the same space and the predictability of the movement of people in a given setting. The last consideration, Houle said, was the most challenging for the county.

“You could put a limit on the number of people who would be allowed in your room and you cannot screen that based on what is the content of what they’re there for,” Houle said, adding if the limit were 50 people, it would be the first 50 people who arrived. “ … We have seen surges in other parts of the country with people gathering in close proximity, especially in indoor spaces. So that’s the issue here, is the unpredictability of crowds that could spontaneously form at your meetings.”

Commissioner Doug Houge said he agreed the board should consider allowing the public to attend in person, but asked whether it would be wise to have guidelines in place before reopening the meetings concerning overflow, where people wait to get into the meeting and other potential issues.

Franzen said she thought the inclusion of the social distancing requirements took care of those concerns. The board passed the motion 4-1, with Barrows opposed.

The county board first limited public attendance as part of a local emergency declaration March 21. While the county board has not permitted members of the public to attend meetings, commissioners have continued to meet in person in the county board room.

Before the pandemic, regular county board meetings were livestreamed and stored on the county’s website. Those options have expanded as the board meetings are now also livestreamed on YouTube and three of the board’s committee meetings once only available by in-person attendance are now accessible live and after the fact. This includes committee of the whole, budget committee and personnel committee meetings.

How to participate

To view county board meetings, visit the county’s YouTube page at https://bit.ly/328ld2a or the county’s website at https://bit.ly/32d14bj. Participation via Microsoft Teams will continue for those who prefer. To address the county board on items not on the agenda, call 218-824-1067 no later than 8:30 a.m. the day of the meeting.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.