Portland council to return to City Hall; mayor hopes residents stay home

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Despite the impending return of in-person City Council meetings, Mayor Kate Snyder is asking for patience from the public and hopes people will continue to participate remotely for the time being.

The council will return to Council Chambers on March 21, its first in-person meeting since City Hall was closed to the public on March 13, 2020, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Kate Snyder
Portland Mayor Kate Snyder

Because it will be the first time back, Snyder said last week, the city still must troubleshoot how its hybrid meetings, combining participation in the chambers and via Zoom, will work.

“For someone who wants to listen in or just has a few items to weigh in on, the best option is to continue to do that remotely and let us work through the challenges,” Snyder said.

The mayor said she is not sure if masks will be required for councilors, city staff, or members of the public. There will be plastic partitions between the councilors at their seats and separating them from the dais, and while seating in the audience will be spread out, Snyder said she doesn’t believe the layout of the chambers will allow 6 feet of separation.

While there will be at least one major item on the March 21 agenda – the second reading and vote on the city’s annual Capital Improvement Plan – the mayor said she hopes to keep the meeting “relatively light,” because it will be the first in-person meeting in two years and the first in-person meeting ever for six of the nine councilors. 

Snyder said there are different dynamics and procedures for in-person meetings and Zoom sessions, including how councilors are recognized to speak by the mayor, and the need for councilors to stand when they make presentations.

“There will be a lot of factors that will require us to take it slowly,” she said.

Snyder said for those viewing at home, the Zoom interface “will be very familiar” with audience members able to engage as they have for the past two years, although the councilors will all be in the same video window.

But that’s also where the troubleshooting comes in.

For example, when it comes to public comment, Snyder said they will have to decide the order in which people participate: people on the floor in Council Chambers first, then those in the balcony, and then the people on Zoom?

“If nobody shows up in person,” she said, “we have our answer.”

Snyder said the response so far to resuming in-person meetings has been mixed, although most councilors had expressed interest in returning to City Hall at the end of 2021 before the omicron variant changed their plans.

“It’s so important that we have relationships among us, and that’s hard to do when we’re not in person,” Snyder said.

City staff will not be required to come into Council Chambers if they are not comfortable with the arrangement. Staff that is needed to makes presentations or to answer questions will still be allowed to participate remotely.  

Live cable television availability of meetings may also be complicated by the hybrid nature of the sessions.

Executive Director Tom Handel of the Portland Media Center, which replays the City Council meetings, said that prior to the pandemic Spectrum would operate the recording equipment in Council Chambers and distribute the video live via Channel 2.

“We would set up our server to record the meeting from the Channel 2 signal and rebroadcast the meetings a couple of times before the next council meeting, as well as archive the recording and make it available on-demand on our website,” Handel said.

Portland has ordered equipment designed to combine the in-person and Zoom participants in a live television feed, but it had not arrived as of last week.

Even if they can’t make the meeting available in real-time for cable TV until the new equipment is in place, City Hall spokesperson Jessica Grondin said, it will still be live-streamed online.