Changes coming: Butler County officials have mixed reviews on pandemic-imposed virtual meetings

The Butler County commissioners were forced to meet virtually on Monday due to the fact all three commissioners were COVID quarantined.
The Butler County commissioners were forced to meet virtually on Monday due to the fact all three commissioners were COVID quarantined.

Credit: NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

Credit: NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

Some Butler County municipalities and boards are changing their policies for in-person meetings after the state removed pandemic-induced permission to sidestep some rules, and officials have mixed reviews on those virtual experiences.

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic the state allowed local governmental bodies to hold their business meetings virtually, to comply with social distancing mandates. That permission stopped when the legislature declined to extend it on July 1.

Ohio Rep. Thomas Hall told the Journal-News they wanted the state “to get back to normal as quick as possible.”

“I think it boiled down to just getting back in-person to a more normal way of life,” Hall said. “And not having that virtual atmosphere for the rest of time.”

For years, many county residents could steam meetings live or access video later. Throughout the crisis, most jurisdictions continued in-person meetings but spaced out seating to six feet separations. Some needed to resort to virtual meetings when COVID-19 numbers spiked.

The legislative permission to skirt open meetings laws came into play for Butler County last November when all three county commissioners contracted COVID-19. The county deployed Webex so the commissioners — when well enough to conduct business but still under quarantine — could participate in the meetings.

They also used it to provide public access to the meetings, so people could participate. The commission chamber is relatively small and could not fit many socially distanced people.

The county stopped using the Webex when the legislature erased the virtual option for meetings but live broadcasts on the county commissioners’ website continue to be available.

“Nothing is being taken away and we only did it during that period of time because the guidance and restrictions from the health department were that you couldn’t go to these meetings,” County Administrator Judi Boyko said. “So we wanted people to have the opportunity to participate in our government when they were physically unable to attend.”

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The county and several other jurisdictions needed to hold public hearings during the pandemic so they needed a vehicle for people to voice their opinions. People could speak when allowed in through the system or submit their concerns via email with messages that were read into the record.

Liberty Twp. held a very contentious 3 1/2-hour Zoom hearing on a proposed memory care center in December. Carriage Hill developer Randy Terry could have faced a hostile crowd, but told the Journal-News at the time that he prefers in-person meetings.

“It has good points and bad points, I think in a meeting of this nature when you have opposition I think it minimizes some of the emotional component which I think is a good thing,” Terry said. “But I think in many cases I would certainly prefer the face-to-face public forum in being able to have meaningful exchange with in this case trustees.”

Now that open meetings laws are back in effect, governmental bodies cannot allow the public to participate virtually. Middletown City Manager Jim Palenick said it is difficult to manage meetings with the public participating remotely.

“It’s very hard to allow the general public who participate on Zoom to somehow participate in the meeting, where you’d be allowing them to mute and unmute because if they had control to mute and unmute you wouldn’t be able to control it,” Palenick said. “It could get disruptive... Usually they are allowed to listen to hear, maybe to submit in writing.”

The Liberty Twp. trustees did not use video technology before the pandemic, but it now will offer residents the ability to view meetings live or come in person.

“I’m not a huge fan of it, I’m actually the alter ego when it comes to recordings, I like a written record, I don’t like even a voice recording and certainly don’t like a video records,” Schramm said. “I think it sets us up for failure, no matter what I do in there what gets recorded isn’t going to be exactly what I looked like or said in a meeting. And people can grab little snippets and cobble them together and craft a message that may not be the actual message.”

Liberty Twp. Trustee Tom Farrell has long supported virtual access for the sake of government transparency. He said the pandemic allowed him to attend zoning meetings, as part of his due diligence, without making people uncomfortable by a personal visit.

The Butler County Veterans Service Commission has been broadcasting meetings live on Facebook throughout the pandemic, and while no visitors usually attended in-person meetings, Executive Director Mike Farmer said on average about 90 people have been watching online. They will continue the practice.

“It keeps those within the community actively engaged and aware of what is happening with support of veterans in Butler County,” Farmer said. “It also ensures transparency while offering county residents the luxury to watch from where ever they may be.”

In the schools, larger districts like Lakota and Fairfield used local township or city cable TV crews to videotape their meetings. A number of smaller districts either used Zoom or Facebook Live to broadcast meetings in real time or videotaped them for posting later to their websites.

“As a school board member, I prefer in-person meetings. Virtual meetings played an important part in governments (and businesses) being able to continue to function during a pandemic,” Fairfield School Board President Michael Berding said. “However government entities, in my opinion, should have in-person meetings so the public can attend in person and have their voices heard.”

Last summer most school board meetings were conducted with board members participating remotely but they returned to in-person meetings last fall. Nearly all are now offering a combination of limited, public seating at meetings combined some from of broadcasting on the internet either in real-time or a day or two later via video.

Staff writer Michael D. Clark contributed to this report.