“Anybody can come see us.”
“You can’t do public comment on YouTube.”
“There’s a lot of buttons to push.”
“Being present is very important.”
Those are among the arguments Kenai City Council members made during their July 7 meeting in support of and against allowing members of the public to continue participating in city meetings remotely via Zoom.
The city became the latest peninsula municipality to mull the future of Zoom access during that meeting and ultimately voted to continue offering remote participation through the end of the city’s current Zoom subscription, except for adjudicatory meetings. Kenai’s Zoom subscription is set to expire next March.
Zoom, which was founded in 2011, became a dominant platform for remote gatherings over the course of the pandemic. Among other things, the software was used to conduct city, borough and school board meetings, as well as to offer remote learning options for students at the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s 42 schools.
Kenai City Clerk Jamie Heinz cited the elimination of Zoom services in Soldotna and in Seward as part of the reason she brought forth consideration of the city’s Zoom services at Wednesday’s meeting.
Council member Teea Winger said that while she personally does not enjoy using Zoom, continuing to offer remote participation for city meetings improves access and transparency in a digital age and is of particular value to people who may not be able to testify in person at council meetings.
“We heard [that] we have the YouTube channel versus the Zoom for public participation — you can’t do public comment on YouTube, which you can do on Zoom,” Winger said. “So there would be a total lack of an aspect there.”
The City of Kenai broadcasts city meetings live on its YouTube channel, but that platform does not allow for public comments to be made in real time. People are able to send in comments ahead of meetings to the city clerk and to make comments in person during the meeting.
Vice Mayor Bob Molloy said he agreed with Winger, but proposed removing Zoom participation for the city’s adjudicatory meetings, such as those of the Board of Adjustment meetings.
“I don’t think we should use Zoom for that,” Molloy said. “Of course, we have to be present and I think we should have all of the participants and witnesses be present.”
Council member Glenese Pettey said she is “really not in favor of Zoom at all” and that she wants to reevaluate remote participation when the city’s Zoom contract expires.
“What we do here is very important and being present is very important and having interaction presently is very important,” Pettey said.
Council member Henry Knackstedt called having the Zoom screen present in council chambers a “distraction,” said the council sees little public participation via Zoom and pushed back on the idea that city meetings would be less transparent without Zoom services offered.
“Transparency — that’s a catch word,” Knackstedt said. “We’re pretty transparent on the screen up there. There’s no lack of transparency here. Anybody can come see us.”
Members of the public have also been allowed to participate remotely in other city meetings, such as commission meetings. Heinz said the task of getting commission meetings oriented with Zoom participants has fallen to the city clerk’s office.
“There’s a lot of buttons to push … I just wanted to make sure that that was something that you still wanted going forward,” Heinz said.
Heinz said earlier this year that the City of Kenai pays $1,850 annually for its Zoom subscription, which she said includes her user account, a Zoom room and audio conferencing. That configuration is used for city council and commission meetings.
Offering of Zoom services in municipalities throughout the rest of the borough has varied.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly Clerk Johni Blankenship told the Clarion earlier this year that the borough has no plans to stop offering Zoom participation for assembly meetings because the platform allows people from around the borough’s diverse communities to participate from home.
Borough IT Director Ben Hanson said earlier this year that the borough spends about $1,300 monthly for Zoom services, $150 of which goes directly toward remote participation during assembly meetings. The rest of that monthly fee goes toward other uses of Zoom by the borough.
Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Administrative Assistant Lisa Gabriel said Sunday that the Board of Education has not discussed changing the current meeting format for board meetings. People are able to participate remotely via Zoom. If the format of the meetings change, Gabriel said, a notification will appear on a meeting agenda five days before the meeting.
Remote participation in government meetings via Zoom has already been discontinued in some peninsula cities.
The City of Seward became the first municipality to announce that it would no longer allow members of the public to participate remotely in government meetings in late April. Seward City Clerk Brenda Ballou said the city would stop offering that option because members of the public were allowed to attend city meetings in person as long as they followed COVID-19 mitigation protocols.
Seward City Municipal Clerk Jessica Stalard said earlier this year that the city paid just under $1,900 for one year of Zoom services, which was a discounted rate.
The City of Soldotna took similar action last month, when the city council voted to end remote participation via Zoom, effective immediately. Soldotna City Clerk Shellie Saner told the Clarion earlier this year that Soldotna’s Zoom Meetings Pro subscription, which included a video webinar for up to 500 participants and toll-free call in for audio conferencing, cost the city about $3,100 annually.
Kenai’s July 7 council meeting can be viewed on the city’s YouTube channel.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at email@example.com.