Pending feedback from epidemiologists, the city and county of Missoula could return meetings to a virtual format, though spatial constraints could bring new challenges as Municipal Court moves into City Council chambers on a temporary basis.
Chris Lounsbury, the county’s CAO, said the City-County Health Department is preparing guidelines for local government on public meetings in the wake of the latest Covid-19 spike. The results should be available this week.
“We asked (the health officer) for the epidemiology team, which was working on some guidance for the university system, to also look at guidance for local government like they provided the schools,” said Lounsbury. “Especially given there will be community variants with spikes beyond Delta.”
The City of Missoula continued in-person public meets into the spring of 2020 while testing its virtual system, which it did for the first time that April. Shortly after, the city ended in-person meetings and has relied upon a virtual format ever since.
Missoula Mayor John Engen said guidance from the epidemiology team could be considered in the months to come as the city considers returning to a hybrid format, where meetings would be held both in-person and virtually.
But that will depend on the virus and whether it moves from one spike to the next.
“We have the technology in place to do hybrid in council chambers, and I’m inclined to get back in person to for a period that folks want to,” said Engan. “Virtual has allowed more people to participate. We don’t want to create a situation where that will stop. You’re saving drive time, and there’s a lot to be said for those meetings being virtual.”
City Council and other volunteer boards meet at night, and council chambers would be available for Monday night City Council meetings. But council committees meet during the day, and council chambers will be occupied during that time by Municipal Court.
A third courtroom will be constructed in City Hall, but that will take time.
“We’ll be able to host Monday night City Council meetings in person, but we still have problems related to committees,” said city CAO Dale Bickell. “With all the problems everyone’s heard related to construction, we’ve had the same thing. We went out to bid and didn’t get any bids.”
The county also ended public meetings last year but returned to a hybrid system earlier this year. After the second Covid spike, however, it went back to a virtual format and remains there now.
Like the city, the county is waiting for health department guidance.
“I hope after a window of time for people to get boosted and kids to get vaccinated, we’d slip into some semi-permanence of hybrid meetings,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick.
The vaccination rate in Missoula County is at roughly 68%.