The Columbia City Council unanimously approved a motion to allow council members to virtually participate in council work sessions at its regular meeting Tuesday.
This change came a week after First Ward Councilperson Pat Fowler was barred from participating in a work session.
Mayor Barbara Buffaloe on Tuesday reiterated that she did not think the work session was the appropriate venue for making a rule change. When considering when a councilperson could participate remotely, Fifth Ward Councilperson Matt Pitzer wanted to set clear boundaries.
“If you’re on vacation and you want to Zoom in, I’m not sure that’s acceptable,” Pitzer said.
No restrictions were placed on virtual participation at the meeting.
Fowler, who said she was at work during the work session she wanted to virtually attend, said she uses vacation days to attend meetings.
“My preference is always to be there in person because I believe in the power of discussing these together and asking questions directly,” Fowler said.
Throughout the meeting, several residents expressed disappointment in the council’s vote to not allow Fowler to make comments and participate remotely.
Rosie Gerding, a resident in Fowler’s ward, expressed this sentiment.
“The problem with that is that I don’t get the kind of representation I deserve,” Gerding said.
Virtual participation in meetings was a hot topic for the council at its meeting Tuesday.
The Disabilities Commission requested that the council allow virtual participation in boards, commissions and council meetings.
The first step in the commission’s request was to extend the ongoing virtual meeting trial program, which was set to expire on June 30.
Buffaloe made the motion, and it passed unanimously.
While this will allow the Disabilities Commission’s meetings to continue its remote capability, this change is not yet expanded to other boards’ and commissions’ meetings.
The council decided to ask city staff for more information before taking further action on expanding remote access.
An important distinction is the difference between virtual attendance and virtual participation. Attendance means simply watching, while participation allows voting, making comments and counting toward quorum.
For the past six months, the Disabilities Commission was in a virtual meeting trial program to test the waters of virtual participation.
Kate Graham, who served on the commission for two years, said the lack of remote access to meetings “limits who can be a part of forming the city’s future.”
“By not allowing virtual participation,” Graham said, “you’re disregarding the input of people who have disabilities that make it difficult or impossible to get to and from council meetings and commission meetings.”
Rene Powell, a member of the Disabilities Commission, urged the council to allow virtual participation in order to mitigate further attendance problems, citing issues meeting quorum.
Buffaloe pointed out that some venues were more technologically ready to allow virtual participation. Confusion about which boards and commissions have the resources to adapt to the new changes will affect any future program’s implementation.
“It’s not just a switch of the light switch,” said City Manager De’Carlon Seewood. He said that some boards and commissions may be able to simply turn on a computer and start a virtual meeting. With city staffing shortages, he also said he did not want to overload work onto city staff.
While Graham acknowledged that it may be more complicated for other groups, she said it was simple for the Disabilities Commission to make the switch.
Seewood recommended that city staff gather more information about the capabilities of each board and commission. He said they should find where each group meets, what the venue’s capabilities are and what the city can do to assist them in allowing virtual participation.
City manager signals support for transit study
Seewood said at the meeting Tuesday night that public transit is his second highest priority for the city’s Fiscal Year 2023 budget.
Annette Triplett, a member of the Climate and Environment Commission, presented a report recommending the council establish a task force to create a more robust public transportation system in Columbia.
“One thing that I’ve heard from a lot of citizens is our system doesn’t work,” Seewood said. “Our system doesn’t allow for us to get people to where they need to be.”
During public comment, Columbia resident December Harmon told the council “serious improvements need to be made” to public transit. Harmon said the bus she takes to get home never came Tuesday, and she only found out that her bus had been in an accident through her own initiative.
Harmon said the city needs to address how existing bus routes do not cover much of Columbia and how buses come infrequently.
In 2019, Columbia set a goal to lower greenhouse gas emissions 35% by 2035 and 80% by 2050. Transportation accounted for 28% of Columbia’s emissions in 2019, according to the report the committee submitted to the council.
Central to lowering emissions is shifting trips from cars to public transit, according to the report. Currently, 78% of trips in Columbia are by car, and just 1% are by transit. The trips by transit must increase to 17% by 2035 and 40% by 2050 to meet emission goals.