By DOTTY NIST
Plans are for ZOOM to again be available soon for use of the public in participating in Walton County public meetings following a brief lapse in use of the popular videoconferencing program.
ZOOM availability will come with changes approved by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) at its July 27 meeting at the South Walton Annex. Among the changes will be a registration program and requirement to register in order for the public to participate in meetings via ZOOM.
ZOOM had been in use for public meetings in Walton County for a little over a year in connection with the COVID-19 emergency. It had been discontinued on July 6 for BCC meetings. Due to requests from the public, on July 27 the BCC took action to resume ZOOM accompanied with modifications to meeting procedures.
The modifications were approved to be made to Walton County’s existing Meeting Procedures document.
Walton County Land Use Attorney Steve Hall presented the proposed revisions to the BCC at the July 27 meeting.
Hall told the commissioners that he had researched how other counties and municipalities were dealing with ZOOM “post-emergency.” He reported that only a small number of areas were “continuing the ZOOM participation,” although video meeting access was being continued almost universally in other formats.
Throughout, Walton County has continued to provide live stream and video access to public meetings, but the public has been required to use ZOOM in order to provide comment.
Hall said the structure he had put forth in the proposed revisions appeared to be the most popular for cities and counties.
This provided for an advance registration system, with sign-up possible on the county website for any agenda item a member of the public opts to speak on.
Asked about the ability to provide quasi-judicial (sworn) testimony, Hall said his proposed revisions did not address that type of comment. He explained that only a couple of Florida counties had provided for quasi-judicial testimony via ZOOM and that those counties had set up “very detailed rules” for this participation. He offered to provide more information on this to the BCC or anyone who wanted to take a look at it.
Clay Adkinson, acting county attorney, advised against providing for quasi-judicial testimony via ZOOM, saying that allowing it would likely set the county up for trouble in connection with the swearing-in process and the logistics of accomplishing that process.
The revised meeting procedures prohibit audio-only connections, requiring ZOOM participants to be able to view the board members and the board members to be able to view the participants.
In response to a question, Hall also explained that ZOOM participants are also required to agree to the risk of the system going down, as sometimes happens.
A section of the revisions was devoted to virtual attendance of commissioners via ZOOM at a meeting due to illness or other extraordinary circumstances. The section provided for one of the five commissioners to attend virtually as long as a quorum of the board were physically present.
The commissioners decided against provisions for a commissioner attending virtually to vote, opting to allow that commissioner to engage in discussion only. Adkinson reported problems in other counties with instances in which more than one commissioner requested to attend virtually.
District 1 Commissioner Boots McCormick and District 3 Commissioner Mike Barker emphasized the difference between being present when votes are taken and attending a meeting virtually, with Barker noting that an official attending via ZOOM is not looking at attendees to see their reactions to what is being discussed or considered. “It’s a different animal,” he said.
District 2 Commissioner Danny Glidewell agreed that this was not an ideal way to do business.
The changes to the meeting procedures that had been agreed upon were approved in a 4-0 vote, with District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson absent due to illness.
On Aug. 2, Walton County Public Information Manager Louis Svehla reported that he was finalizing the registration process that had been discussed and was hopeful of having it completed on Aug. 3.
Svehla said plans are that once the registration process is in place, it is to be used for all BCC meetings and planning department-based public meetings, with the exception of quasi-judicial items. He noted that training of staff would be necessary in connection with the registration process.
Svehla promised a press release once everything is in place, with registration forms to be included.