While stay-at-home orders and social distancing protocols have been issued nationwide and across St. Louis County, some members of the Wildwood City Council expressed concerns that those measures had not been followed at a meeting held a month ago on the evening of March 23.
Council member Kevin Dillard [Ward 3] was one of those concerned individuals.
Specifically, Dillard called into question why some council members needed to attend the March 23 meeting in-person when, six days prior, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt stated that local governments could conduct public meetings in alternative ways, such as via video conferencing, and would not be in violation of the Sunshine Law.
While some council members participated digitally, according to Dillard, council members were told that a physical quorum of nine people was needed to proceed in an email Bowlin sent to the council on March 16.
Another email sent by City Administrator Sam Anselm on March 20 reiterated the that a voting number of nine individuals needed to by physically present, but also offered council members the opportunity to participate via video conference or audio conference. However, according to Dillard, council members weren’t made aware of Schmitt’s recommendation, which had been issued on March 17.
“Nobody knew, to my understanding, other than the mayor and the city attorney and the city administrator, that the guidance had been given,” Dillard said in a follow-up with West Newsmagazine. “There was no communication from the city to all of us [council members] that a physical quorum was not needed until we were already there … Quite frankly, if an email had been sent at 5 p.m. that meeting, it would have avoided that mess. That came out six days before the meeting, so why we weren’t told about that, I have no idea.”
According to Bowlin, he knew of the attorney general’s ruling before the meeting but decided to proceed as planned per the city’s ordinance stating that city council meetings are held on the second and fourth Monday each month unless otherwise stated.
“That opinion from the attorney general doesn’t have the weight of the law,” Bowlin said. “It is an opinion. If we were ever challenged on something, courts don’t follow that.”
While County Executive Sam Page previously imposed a restriction that 10 people was the limit for enclosed spaces, Bowlin also pointed out that municipalities were exempt, but did acknowledge that the changing state of legislation and orders delayed the final decision.
“We had multiple orders coming from the St. Louis County Executive, the St. Louis County Department of Health, the Missouri governor, and then the attorney general,” Bowlin said. “We were sorting whether they were consistent leading up to the meeting and how we were going to handle it. The other part of the analysis that our city administrator wanted to obtain was how other cities were handling this in light of that attorney general opinion. Long story short, all of that did not culminate into a final decision on what to do until the eleventh hour, right before the council meeting.”
Some council members did make the choice after seeing the March 20 email to attend the meeting digitally. Council member Joe Garritano [Ward 8] was one of those individuals.
“It was left up to us how we wanted to participate,” Garritano said.
Garritano also addressed the recommendation by the attorney general.
“The attorney general issued the guideline, but the law is the law,” Garritano said. “It kind of creates this gray area.”
According to Garritano, other council members and city staff members also utilized video and phone conferencing to participate, including Planning & Parks Director Joe Vujnich and Anselm, who both came in and out of the chamber while also video conferencing from different rooms at city hall.
However, according to Dillard, there were still multiple instances at the dais where social distancing didn’t appear to be followed. Dillard recalled one incident specifically where Vujnich called to the front and used the mayor’s microphone.
“It was as if the social distancing rules were disregarded, if they were even considered at all,” Dillard said.
Bowlin disagreed and said that social distancing measures had been put in place.
“We moved the chairs of the council members, we installed tables in front of the dais so if other council members showed up they could still be involved while staying six feet apart, we moved chairs out of the room for the public where no one would be closer than six feet to each other,” Bowlin said. “I asked the city administrator to move to another location to keep the number down. I asked the police officers that are always there to stand outside to keep the number down.”
Also at the March 23 meeting, the council adopted an emergency resolution [Resolution #2020-11] outlining a few citywide provisions for conducting business for the duration of the crisis. This included language stating that no committee, commission, or board over which the city council has authority shall call or hold any meetings unless the chairperson deems such meeting necessary for city operations or residential welfare. All other committee, board and commission chairpersons are encouraged to withhold from holding any meeting unless necessary.
The resolution also allowed council members and other members of the various committees, commissions, and boards of to participate in any meetings of their respective public governmental bodies by either telephone or videoconferencing means.
Finally, the passage of the resolution also authorized Bowlin to direct Anselm to suspend the enforcement of certain ordinances of the city for the duration of the pandemic.
On April 3, the resolution’s power was used to close the parking lots of multiple trailheads within the city limits to prevent overcrowding. The lots remain closed as of press time.
On April 8, the same order was also was used to expedite the emergency purchase and installation of small cell technology to provide high-speed internet access on a provisional basis. The order was set to go into effect immediately for Brookhollow Lane and Hencken Road.
Following the events of the March 23 meeting, the Wildwood city council’s latest meeting on April 13 was conducted virtually via Zoom with minimal city staff members physically present at city hall.