Pandemic pushing more governments to virtual meetings. Does that help residents?

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

Several Butler County governments are returning to virtual meetings as coronavirus cases climb, although many officials say the pandemic has actually created greater transparency.

Liberty Twp. and the city of Trenton moved back to virtual meetings this week after a stretch of in-person, twice monthly business meetings. Ross Twp. might follow suit.

Liberty Twp. made the move in part because cases in the township’s two largest ZIP codes, 45011 and 45044, are on the rise at 2,176 and 1,790 respectively, according to the county health district’s epidemiology report for Nov. 30. Cases in those ZIP codes increased 552 collectively over the previous week.

The township also decided last week to shutter its administrative office, as it did at the beginning of the pandemic.

“The coronavirus throughout this has been a lot about the numbers in county, well now it’s about the numbers in our township,” Trustee Tom Farrell said. “We are seeing increased cases, I think we’ve all seen friends with coronavirus now and we may not have seen in the first five or six months. It has gotten bad.”

All three county commissioners, two West Chester Twp. trustees and the West Chester Twp. fire chief all contracted the virus.

“How long can we dodge that bullet?” he said.

Commissioner Don Dixon is the only official still out of commission, but he told the Journal-News he expects to be back to work soon.

ExploreButler County commissioners still missing one member after coronavirus diagnoses

Some boards have held their meetings live on Facebook, YouTube and Zoom. Liberty Twp. held its meeting via Zoom on Tuesday, a meeting made more difficult because there was public hearing on a new memory care facility neighbors in Carriage Hill are protesting.

Only four residents spoke during the Zoom meeting but Lindsay Bayer, who was representing about 328 neighbors who signed an opposition petition, said more than 100 people would have shown up if the meeting had been in-person.

Trustee Steve Schramm said they will continue the virtual meetings at least until their first one in January.

“I still struggle with not being face-to-face as I’m a body language kind of guy,” Schramm said. “What I hear somebody saying and what I see them saying are a lot of times two different things.”

Zoning hearings, especially over controversial developments, can sometimes get out of hand. Carriage Hill developer Randy Terry could have faced hostile crowd Tuesday, but 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.”

Trenton went virtual for its council meeting on Thursday via Zoom because of the rising COVID-19 numbers. City Manager Marcos Nichols said since the pandemic began it has been broadcasting meetings on Facebook, which helped transparency.

“Certainly one of the positive things that has come out of this is definitely more transparency from a governmental perspective,” Nichols said adding they have broadcasted other meetings like the park board as well. “Seeing those viewer numbers in the double digits, you know 15 people viewing, knowing that we don’t have 15 people coming to city council meetings.”

The Butler County Veterans Service Commission has been meeting live on Facebook throughout the pandemic and while no visitors usually attended in-person meetings, Executive Director Mike Farmer said about 150 people have been watching online.

“It has been a great success and victory for transparency during a pandemic,” Farmer said.

All the other major jurisdictions — except Oxford which has been virtual since April — have been holding socially distanced in-person meetings, most with live feeds through Facebook, YouTube or Zoom.