Governments return to in-person operations
ALPENA — “I’m all Zoomed out,” Alpena County Commissioner John Kozlowski said on Thursday afternoon.
For months, his and other governments across Michigan have held regular meetings over the videoconferencing software Zoom in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Now, as the outbreak slows in the state and life returns to something like normal, many governments are making plans to have in-person meetings again.
Kozlowski, the District 8 commissioner who represents Sanborn and Ossineke townships on the south end of Alpena County, said there are pros and cons to meeting remotely, but he is ready to get back to in-person meetings, which started first with subcommittee meetings and continued last week with full committee meetings.
The full board will reconvene in person on June 30.
“My take on the Zoom meetings is … the negatives, to me, at least in my experience, have kind of outweighed the positives,” Kozlowski said. “I feel like you have a different type of conversation when you have a full in-person meeting, as opposed to the Zoom meetings.”
On numerous occasions over the past several months, he has been kicked out of his own meetings he was trying to lead as chairman of a committee, and that’s “a definite pain in the neck,” he said.
The app he was using just stopped working in the middle of the meeting.
On the plus side, Kozlowski said, working remotely is convenient and efficient.
“I don’t have to leave work, and I can do a Zoom meeting here,” he said. “I can be at home doing a Zoom meeting … There are other perks, like you can wait till the last second and sign on and be wherever you are and log in.”
At the in-person meetings, social distancing was practiced and some people wore masks to the meeting but took them off to talk, Kozlowski said.
“To me, it’s difficult to do the communication with the mask on,” said Kozlowski, who did not wear a mask. He said other commissioners were not wearing masks either.
Alpena County Commissioner Bill Peterson is the District 4 commissioner, serving a portion of Alpena Township. Peterson, who is chairman of the finance committee, said Wednesday’s in-person meeting went well, and the number of people in the room was limited. Public comment was still conducted remotely. Chairs were spaced out with six feet in between each person.
“All the department heads were given a time to be there, and they showed up for their time, so they weren’t sitting around waiting to give their report,” Peterson said.
Peterson was a fan of the remote meetings, noting both the opportunity to meet with people out of the area and the cost savings of running meetings remotely.
“I thought everything worked pretty good with the Zoom calls, and even the MSN,” another remote meeting software, he said, noting that the app allowed the board to meet with representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
He added that there is no per-diem mileage cost for conducting a Zoom meeting.
Going forward, Peterson said, using remote video applications could be useful in some instances.
“It’s more efficient,” he said, but noted in-person communication flows better sometimes. “The only problem I see with Zoom is if you get two or three people trying to talk. Which is sometimes good — you can mute them,” he said with a chuckle.
He added that there was not much public comment on the Zoom meetings.
“If somebody wants to express something, it’s kind of hard for them to get on,” Peterson said. “For a lot of those people, it’s not something they do every day.”
Some people, especially in outlying rural areas, do not have internet access, but Peterson said you can call into a Zoom meeting.
Anne Gentry, executive director of the Alpena Downtown Development Authority, said the DDA is still conducting virtual board meetings during June.
“Starting in July, our plan is to host our board meetings in person again,” with social distancing in place, Gentry said. The board is still deciding how to allow the public to attend, whether in person or online. “Our committees, we are planning on hosting those virtually, at least for this month and probably for next month as well.”
Gentry said the virtual meetings have been shorter, and “it’s nice to have the flexibility to call in or video in without having to leave your storefront.”
When making tough decisions or brainstorming, there’s no substitute for meeting in person, she said.
In the Upper Peninsula, Don Piche is chairman of the Keweenaw County Board of Commissioners. He said Wednesday was the first board meeting held in-person since the COVID-19 pandemic started in mid-March.
“We kept our distance and everything in the courthouse,” Piche said. “And the public was by Zoom. So then that worked out pretty good.”
He is glad to be back to in-person meetings, because, he said, “you can’t get nothing done on these Zoom meetings.”
He said many of the people in the U.P. live in rural areas where internet connection is spotty, at best, so that affects the Zoom meetings.
“Even the ones that have good internet service, it’s kind of spotty, you’re talking over each other,” he said. “I don’t care for it.”
He said his board members spread out in the courtroom to observe social distancing. The public participated via Zoom to avoid a crowd.
He said it will continue in this manner for June, and they may revisit the format next month.