As of earlier in March, there are now just two ways to make a public comment to the Nome City Council: go in-person or submit an email to the city clerk by noon the day of the meeting. As the city incorporates technology, the process for how citizens can participate in their city meetings is also changing.
Before the pandemic began, Nome City Council meetings were only accessible by in-person participation. When the state passed emergency restrictions on public gatherings, the Nome City Council had to significantly alter operations to allow for public participation under the Alaska Open Meetings Act.
One change included allowing citizens to dial-in to the meeting directly and submit their comments live on the phone, allowing for direct remote participation. Nome Mayor John Handeland explained that the city has since put meetings on cable television and gone through different virtual options.
“Once we actually got to the YouTube platform, then that replaced Zoom for allowing people in.”– Nome Mayor John Handeland
As the city transitions to holding meetings in a world post COVID-19, they are looking for new ways to host public participation.
The Nome City Council agreed during their last meeting to set a work session discussing alterations to the way they handle public comments. Handeland is open to a few options.
“But I think in the short run, we probably would do something possibly, or at least we’ll discuss with the council where somebody can register, and we can call them but not having them just dialing in at will.”
That isn’t unprecedented. Anchorage implemented a similar system to accommodate public participation when a surge of COVID-19 cases in that city caused the assembly chambers to close. The Anchorage Assembly has since resumed in-person public participation.
City meetings have also been open to the public without occupancy limitations in Nome for months, although they are often sparsely attended. While the council members have been sitting six-feet apart and half the council still participates virtually through Zoom, council members and city officials have ceased to wear masks during council meetings.
Handeland said he thinks the council is following safe protocols. Here’s what Handeland said when approached by a KNOM reporter:
“You approached me and I put a mask on when you were in my space. I think that when we’re spread out to more than six feet apart, we’re good.”
Norton Sound Health Corporation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that masks be worn in public spaces where there may be unvaccinated people present. Community spread does continue to persist in Nome.
For now, citizens in Nome looking to be a part of their council meetings can attend the meetings in-person or email email@example.com before noon on the day of the council meeting with pre-written statements.
Nome council meetings are available to stream and view later at the city’s YouTube platform. The council has not yet scheduled a work session to further discuss how they will handle public comments. During that meeting, they also hope to discuss moving to an open elections system for city council and the utility board. Under that model, candidates would not have to run for an individual open seat but rather candidates would fill vacant seats based on the majority of votes.
Image at Top: The Council meets to discuss business in March of 2021. From left to right: Councilmember Mark Johnson, Councilmember Doug Johnson, Mayor John Handeland, City Clerk Bryant Hammond, and Acting City Manager Chip Leeper. Not pictured: Nome Police Chief Mike Heintzelman, Deputy Chief Bob Pruckner, and NJUS Assistant Manager Ken Morton. Emily Hofstaedter, KNOM. 2021.