After More Than A Year In Virtual Session, St. Louis County Council Resumes In-Person Meetings
A lot has changed for members of the St. Louis County Council since they last met in person in March 2020.
A once-in-a-generation pandemic showcased the power of county government — most notably how it can enact restrictions on businesses and gatherings. But COVID-19 also forced the council to conduct its meetings virtually for months, a practice that came to an end on Tuesday when members met in chambers for their weekly meeting.
For the most part, Tuesday’s meeting was uneventful. But council members did spend time lamenting how meeting virtually changed the dynamics between elected officials and the public.
“It all went very well,” said Council Chairwoman Rita Days, D-Bel Nor. “And we have our staff to thank for that. They really did a fantastic job.”
Tuesday’s meeting featured changes made to the chambers since the pandemic hit. Besides an upgraded sound system and a podium area newly compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the chambers now feature large monitors that allow the audience to follow along with the agenda — and to allow for council members to attend the meeting remotely.
That occurred on Tuesday when Councilman Tim Fitch, R-St. Louis County, appeared remotely. There was a slight delay whenever he voted on something, and there were internet connectivity problems during St. Louis County Executive Sam Page’s remarks.
“Because this was our first opportunity, we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Days said. “Hopefully we’ll get that cleared up. They’re still working back there — they have a command central somewhere back there.”
Virtual meetings became a necessity after large gatherings became less common as a way to combat COVID-19. After technical snafus in the beginning, the council migrated to a system that used the live streaming service Webex.
But the process didn’t always go smoothly. For a few months in 2020, the council had staff read emailed comments — which sometimes took hours, or even several days, when the public commented on contentious issues. Eventually, the council chose to require members of the public to speak verbally to council members, which occasionally was fraught with technical glitches.
“You had people who did not have the necessary equipment to get to participate in the meetings,” Days said. “So for a number of reasons, people were cut off. Some people would call after the meeting and say, ‘I was in the queue, I couldn’t get on, I couldn’t hear.’ So it was a lot. But I will tell you it’s a lot easier for us — and I can see all of my members [on the screen] instead of looking here or looking there.
“Anyway, this is what the citizens want, and we’re happy to oblige,” she added.
Tuesday marked the first in-person meeting for Councilwoman Shalonda Webb, D-St. Louis County, who was inaugurated in January after unseating Rochelle Walton Gray.
Webb said that virtual meetings had some advantages, such as increasing participation.
“I was excited to actually be in the chamber and see the public face to face,” Webb said. “Some people’s voices I recognized, because I’ve heard them throughout since January. But I was glad to see us in public face to face today, but at the same time I’m waiting to see that massive community outpour for public face-to-face meetings.”
Stimulus money plans
Page mentioned during his remarks that the county has officially received a portion of the $193 million from the federal American Rescue Plan, which the county executive called “a once-a-generation opportunity to invest in our community while investing in priorities from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“Since the [Rescue Plan] was passed, I’ve met with each of you at least once to discuss the priorities St. Louis County should pursue with these funds,” said Page, adding that using money for vaccine incentive programs is an allowable expense under the federal guidelines.
The council will have to approve how the funds are going to be spent. Days and other council members have suggested spending some of the money on housing needs, especially in unincorporated parts of the county.
She said on Tuesday she wants to look at programs that used money from the 2020 stimulus plan, widely known as the CARES Act.
“Other things that might come to our attention is how the money was actually spent. Were the programs successful? If they were, are there any gaps we need to fill?” Days said. “If they were not successful, we don’t want to throw good money after bad.”
Webb said some of her priorities in her district, which includes large portions of unincorporated St. Louis County, include helping businesses that survived the pandemic thrive over the next few months — as well as figuring out ways to deal with long-term mental health issues that were exacerbated by the pandemic.
“They may have existed before, but they surely materialized more during COVID,” Webb said. “Domestic violence was compounded by COVID. So we can get some of those human services needs met, I know that’s a priority for our community.”
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum