Springfield Mayor Ken McClure decides who gets a key to the city. (Photo by Rance Burger)

The COVID-19 pandemic made lasting changes on the ways we care for ourselves, attend gatherings and events, wash our hands, go to work and take our kids to school. It will also likely change the way the Springfield City Council governs and makes laws.

On March 8, the seven city council members and Mayor Ken McClure held a discussion of how teleconferencing could or should be incorporated into city council proceedings in the future. 

When conducting virtual meetings, the Springfield City Council and its committees have to post notices of the meeting differently than they would a traditional meeting. The staff also has to take special considerations for the meeting setup, guest speaker setups and how to conduct votes in the event that a vote of the council or committee is needed.

Springfield City Manager Jason Gage said that some government officials and guests didn’t have much experience with video teleconferencing, and weren’t sure how to set up their microphones or how to point their cameras. It occasionally offered some unflattering views.

“We saw angles up, down, side-to-side — not hard to fix,” Gage said. “There are certain things you might be able to control, sometimes you can’t.”

Another drawback to holding virtual meetings, or hybrid meetings where some people are in a meeting room and some people are joining remotely, are the lapses in time that occur when two parties try to communicate back and forth.

Gage posed two key questions to members of the Springfield City Council.

“Do you wish to continue with the virtual meeting option after the pandemic fully subsides?” Gage asked “If so, under what protocols?”

The more in-depth question for government officials to grapple with is how accessible the remote option should be for elected or appointed officials. Should it be an option that is always available for officials with busy schedules or who travel often, or should it be available as a last resort option only?

McClure said he favors meeting in person almost always.

“I thought that it would be the last available option instead of an always available option. My view is that we interact better when we’re sitting across the table from each other and can see expressions on faces, can interact with the speakers that come, but on the other hand, there are occasions where you can’t be there for good reason,” McClure said.

Zone two Councilman Abe McGull, an attorney, asked about any legal provisions tied to the city council holding meetings in a virtual format.

“Did we pass an ordinance to allow us to do virtual meetings, or did we just do it as a result of the pandemic? What does the charter say about meetings? Does it say that every council member should appear?” McGull asked. “I’m sure it doesn’t address virtual meetings.”

Springfield City Attorney Rhonda Lewsader had an answer and some historical context about the city charter.

“It was passed in 1953. It doesn’t address any of that. I’m sure the presumption was that people would always meet in person, but it doesn’t specifically require that, either,” Lewsader said.

The Springfield city charter specifies that meetings be open to the public and held on a regular basis, but teleconferencing was not written into the language in 1953, nor when the language was updated in 1979.

“The council shall meet regularly and especially at such times as prescribed by its rules, but not less frequently than once each month. All meetings of the council shall be open to the public, except city council may close such meetings when provided for by state law,” the charter provision for council meetings reads, in part.

Zone four Councilman Matt Simpson has attended meetings by Zoom teleconferencing when he was unable to be at Historic City Hall in person.

“I think it’s an option that we need to have moving forward. I would see, maybe for the Monday night meetings, it becoming the last option,” Simpson said.

Monday night meetings are held twice per month and are when the council brings up bills and resolutions and votes for them. Tuesday lunch meetings and other special sessions are less formal and involve discussion, brainstorming, and council members asking questions of city staffers or offering general direction to staff.

“They are not, inherently, already as formal. I don’t know that you lose as much there, and there are probably more often [times] where more of us have conflicts during the weekdays,” Simpson said.

Councilwoman Heather Hardinger wants to keep virtual attendance on the table for city councils now and in decades to come.

“Of course, I’m a millennial, so I think having a digital option moving forward makes sense,” Hardinger said. “I’m also thinking about the types of people who will serve on city council in the future, and I think it makes sense to have an understanding that you should be in person when you are able to, but considering the type of opportunity this is and how it may not be as accessible to different types of people who have different needs.”

Hardinger works full time and has a resume full of service on different advisory boards and councils, on top of being elected to the city council in 2021.

“If I were a single mom, Monday nights would not work for me most of the time, that’s not my situation now, but I think considering the future and different situations that councilmembers may be in, I think that this is a smart decision to consider,” Hardinger said.

Hardinger asked for balance between an expectation that elected officials attend meetings in person, and an understanding that it may not happen every time for every person, given the diverse stages of life that government representatives may find themselves in. Hardinger said that keeping city council meetings open and transparent for the general public is still important.

“At the same time, I think it’s important that those who represent our community be present for meetings pertaining to city business where we need to vote, or there is a significant topic of discussion where we do need that dialogue, where having that face-to-face interaction may help us make decisions,” Hardinger said.

Hardinger brought up a vacancy on the city council created with the disqualification of former Zone one Councilwoman Angela Romine, who is running for the Missouri State Senate. Hardinger noted that the time commitment and the meeting schedule associated with city council meetings has been discussed as a barrier for people who might otherwise be suitable candidates for appointment to fill the vacancy.

Councilman Andy Lear doesn’t want to see virtual meetings legislated out of existence in Springfield. He said he values a vote of the full council membership on important bills.

“I think we need the option for all of us for various reasons,” Lear said. “Having nine votes available, I think, is important, rather than being absent.”

Lear said he is retired but understands that a willingness to serve on the city council places a burden on members who also work full-time or part-time in addition to holding their unpaid elected position.

Councilman Richard Ollis said he favors in-person meetings, but also holds the understanding that joining a meeting on a virtual platform should be an option. Ollis is a third-generation Springfieldian who operates a family business that has been handed down through generations, and attended a council meeting virtually as recently as Feb. 22.

“I think the collaboration and the understanding that occurs is important,” Ollis said. “Sometimes the times we hold our meetings are, frankly, not very good, and I’ll speak for myself as someone who works a full-time job.”

Ollis saw the discussion on March 8 as a chance to take an ever wider look at how accessible the city council is to Springfield residents, particularly those who are interested in serving while also balancing a career.

“I think we’re going to need to be more flexible, particularly as others run, because it can’t just be retired people that serve on council,” Ollis said.

According to Springfield’s city charter, a councilmember must be a “qualified voter of the city” which means they must be at least 18 years of age, and they must be a Springfield resident for at least two years prior to their election or appointment. There is no other age requirement or age limit for councilmembers in the charter language.

Gage said that he and his staff would likely prepare a set of guidelines for virtual meeting participation that city council members and other meeting participants would be asked to adhere to in the future. The guidelines would include some technical specifications for broadband internet availability and a device’s audiovisual setup, along with some etiquette guidelines for a person’s appearance on camera and muting microphones when listening and not speaking.

Rance Burger

Rance Burger is the managing editor for the Daily Citizen. He previously covered local governments from February 2022 to April 2023. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia with 15 years experience in journalism. Reach him at rburger@sgfcitizen.org or by calling 417-837-3669. Twitter: @RanceBurger More by Rance Burger