By Dan Moffett
Like other municipalities across the state, South Palm Beach is struggling to strike a balance that prevents government meetings from spreading COVID-19 while also ensuring they allow public access and transparency.
Shortly after the virus outbreak began last year, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order that allowed governments to meet virtually, using technology, and suspending the statutory requirement for in-house quorums. But that order expired in October, and what followed was a hodgepodge of meeting strategies throughout the state as cities, towns and counties strived to maintain both access and safety.
South Palm Beach essentially went to a hybrid formula with a quorum of council members present in Town Hall and other council members, officials and the public participating by phone.
During the town’s Jan. 12 meeting, the council unanimously passed new rules and procedures for meetings going forward.
Specifically, the resolution gives the mayor the power and responsibility to authorize hybrid virtual meetings and restrict public participation in the Town Hall chambers to eight people, so social distancing is maintained. Upon the mayor’s order, the town manager becomes responsible for setting up the internet or telephone access. The rules still require a quorum of at least three council members to be physically present.
Mayor Bonnie Fischer said it’s important to guarantee that meetings are accessible to the public and that people understand how they will operate. But she’s not in favor of going exclusively to in-person meetings until the pandemic subsides.
“I’d like to have some semblance of integrity in the town, some continuity that, yes, we’re meeting again,” Fischer said. “No matter what we do, it’s important we have public participation.”
Town Attorney Glen Torcivia told the council that any changes to meeting formats come with legal perils and raise the prospect of clashes between Tallahassee control and principles of home-rule governance.
“There’s a risk for this,” Torcivia said, “because it has not been tested” in the courts.
The council is in unanimous agreement that the town must improve its audio system and technological equipment. Callers participating in meetings have complained about muddled sound and dropped transmissions.
Vice Mayor Robert Gottlieb said the town has about $40,000 set aside in the budget for technology upgrades and should use it to fix the problems.
In other business
• The council expects work to begin this month on the town’s dune restoration project, a joint venture with the town of Palm Beach.
Fischer said Palm Beach officials believe they have solutions to access problems, enabling them to move the sand to South Palm beaches. The plan, estimated to cost the town between $700,000 and $900,000, calls for buying as much as 1,000 truckloads of sand from an ongoing Palm Beach dredging project and using it to repair the erosion damage done by recent storms. The work must be completed before turtle nesting season in May.
• The town has begun handing out thousands of COVID-19 face masks to residents. The council used grant money to cover the $10,000 cost of the masks, and the plan is for each resident to receive five of them.