The Soldotna City Council receives a presentation from their auditors on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, via Zoom. (Screenshot)

The Soldotna City Council receives a presentation from their auditors on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, via Zoom. (Screenshot)

Seward to stop using Zoom for public meetings

The borough, in contrast, has no plans to phase out Zoom services.

The City of Seward announced last week that the city would no longer offer Zoom as a way for the public to participate in city council meetings and work sessions. A press release sent by Seward City Clerk Brenda Ballou said the decision was made in response to the reallowance of members of the public to attend those meetings in person with COVID-19 mitigation protocols.

Zoom, a software company founded in 2011 that became a dominant platform for remote gatherings during the pandemic, has been used by the Kenai Peninsula Borough and its cities over the last year.

Seward City Municipal Clerk Jessica Stallard said Thursday that the city paid just under $1,900 for a year of Zoom services, which was a discounted rate.

“It is my understand[ing] that it was only a special provision made due to COVID, and now that the meetings are open to the public again, it was decided that Zoom was no longer needed,” Stallard said via email.

People interested in participating in meetings remotely are able to listen to the meeting on the radio and on television or watch on the city’s YouTube channel. Those looking to provide public comment must email written comments to the clerk in advance, call into the meeting or give testimony over the phone.

The borough, in contrast, has no plans to phase out Zoom services.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Clerk Johni Blankenship said Thursday that the borough intends to use Zoom “for the foreseeable future.” Part of the appeal, Blankenship said, is that it allows for the borough’s diverse communities to participate in borough meetings from home.

“We have been seeking a remote participation solution for years for those members of the public and for staff,” Blankenship said. “COVID and Zoom have offered us that solution and our remodel has complete integration with the Zoom technology.”

A full remodel of the borough assembly chambers was completed earlier this year and included a new configuration of the assembly dais and the installation of new camera equipment and video monitors.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough spends about $1,300 monthly for Zoom service, $150 of which, Borough IT Director Ben Hanson said, is used to allow for remote participation during assembly meetings. The rest, Hanson said, goes toward borough use of Zoom services for other operations.

In the cities of Kenai and Soldotna, the future of Zoom participation is unclear.

Kenai City Clerk Jamie Heinz said Thursday that the city hasn’t thought about how much longer they will offer remote Zoom participation. Currently, the city has been following the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance in its council chambers, which are currently open for members of the public who want to attend in person. Quarters are tight, though. Heinz said that the chambers can only fit 17 people while adhering to social distancing, and that includes city administration and council members.

Heinz said the city pays $1,850 annually for its Zoom subscription, which includes Heinz’s user account, a Zoom room and audio conferencing. That configuration is used for city council and commission meetings.

“We have been putting plans in place where needed, to extend some of the measures we’ve taken, beyond the possible expiration of an emergency declaration, so formal action may be taken in the future,” Heinz said Thursday.

The City of Soldotna pays $3,100 annually for Zoom Meetings Pro, City Clerk Shellie Saner said Thursday. The city’s subscription includes a video webinar that can host up to 500 participants and toll-free call in for audio conferencing in addition to regular Zoom services.

Saner said the city plans to continue offering remote participation through Zoom until the council makes a decision saying otherwise, which they have not discussed. The council only recently resumed in-person council meetings with COVID mitigation protocols observed.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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