In York County, Zoom meetings offer transparency, hiccups

York Township's Board of Commissioners recite the Pledge of Allegiance during an online public meeting.

The York Township Board of Commissioners recited the Pledge of Allegiance on Tuesday night from the comfort of their bedrooms while a photo of an American flag was shared on a township staff member's screen.

The tradition, signifying the beginning of the township's municipal meeting, was now held over Zoom, a popular video conferencing software. 

"An expression from down South is 'I'm beginning to plow some new ground tonight,'" said Robert Steele, president of the board, causing an eruption of laughs from fellow board members and staff.

York Township's Board of Commissioners, like dozens of other local municipal government bodies, have moved their meetings to the virtual world in compliance with new guidelines limiting social gatherings in attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19.

To continue allowing for residents to attend the public meetings, York Township posted an invitation link to the Zoom conference with guidelines for residents on how to join. 

Residents who wanted to ask a question or make a comment were able to utilize a "raise hand" feature. Alternatively, residents could submit questions or comments ahead of time to PublicComment@YorkTownship.com.

"Zoom video conferencing is being used to allow the township to conduct business transparently and allow the residents of the township an opportunity to see the meeting and provide public comment," said Gary Milbrand, the township's manager.

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With minimal technical difficulties, York Township's meeting was conducted with new guidelines to bolster communication, including requiring board members to state their names before making a motion and muting those who were not speaking at the time.

Municipalities across the county are doing their best to make this work, but when boards and councils are holding virtual meetings from their homes for the first time, complications are inevitable.

The Manchester Township Board of Supervisors held its meeting Tuesday with a teleconference call.

Everyone made it on to the call without issue, but some forgot to mute their phones to reduce noise.

At one point, a landline began ringing in the background while a board member was speaking. The supervisors tried to ignore it and continue their discussion, but then the answering machine loudly chimed in.

Everyone started laughing, and they had to read the motion over again.

There was other audio feedback and odd beeping noises throughout the meeting, which were annoying but ultimately didn't prevent the supervisors from taking care of business.

The state Legislature has voted to amend existing legislation to explicitly allow public agencies to meet remotely during emergencies and to clarify other requirements for remote meetings and emergency meetings.

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Erik Arneson, executive director of the state Office of Open Records, endorsed the amendment on Twitter, especially the addition of a 20-day deadline for agencies to publish the minutes of an emergency meeting.

The amendment also requires that, "to the extent practicable," the public should be able to participate directly in remote meetings through the teleconference or video conference software being used, or via email or physical mail, Arneson said.

The legislation will soon go to Gov. Tom Wolf's desk, Arneson said.

York County government has fared well in the virtual meeting space, in large part because the board of commissioners is still meeting in person, but with social distancing measures in place.

The three commissioners sit far apart, with twice the usual amount of space between them, and the row officers sit at either end of the bench and at fold-up tables  out in front.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, York County was already streaming its meetings live on Facebook and White Rose Community Television, but that resource has now become a vital tool for public participation.

The public can submit questions or comments for the commissioners in the comments section of the Facebook video or by calling 717-771-4333. County spokesman Mark Walters reads them at the podium during the public comment period.

On Wednesday, one woman commented that she had trouble understanding what Solicitor Michelle Pokrifka was saying because Pokrifka wasn't near a microphone. And a reporter asked for clarification about an amendment to a York County Prison contract.

But Walters also read a simple greeting from the public, telling the commissioners that someone named Linda Walker said "Good morning."

And Commissioner Julie Wheeler responded.

"Good morning, Linda," she said.

— Reach Tina Locurto at tlocurto@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @tina_locurto. Reach Lindsey O'Laughlin at lolaughlin@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @lmolaughlin.