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Parkersburg City Council passes attendance restriction

Carpenter unable to be heard in electronic meeting

PARKERSBURG — City Council on Friday approved a resolution temporarily limiting the public’s in-person access to its meetings during the COVID-19 state of emergency by a 7-1 vote.

It would have been 7-2, but no one could hear Councilman J.R. Carpenter.

Like the May 5 council meeting, this session was conducted via the Microsoft Teams app, with council members and other officials participating via computer or phone. The meeting was streamed live on the city’s YouTube channel.

The only item on the agenda was a resolution suspending council’s rules with regard to public access to meetings for as long as West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice’s state of emergency declaration over the pandemic remains in effect.

Instead of the usual public forum, people are encouraged to submit their comments via an email to City Clerk Connie Shaffer or by calling her. Their comments would then be made part of the meeting’s record.

As many as four people can also watch the live stream in the executive conference room on the second floor of the Municipal Building, per Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department occupancy guidelines.

Councilman Jeff Fox questioned the timing of the resolution while many restrictions aimed at curbing the virus’ spread are being relaxed.

“Gyms and health clubs are opening up Monday,” he said. “The city is promoting people coming out and visiting small businesses that are opening. And I just don’t understand why a special meeting needed to be called to push this forward this evening.”

Council President Mike Reynolds said they were required by law to accommodate an in-person public hearing at the April 21 meeting during which they voted to lay the levy. That was done with a microphone in the conference room.

“We could have done it (this resolution) at the last meeting, but we didn’t, so this is about the soonest that we were able to do it,” Reynolds said.

The resolution passed 7-1, with Fox opposed.

Carpenter was participating by phone and could be heard among other council members greeting each other prior to the meeting being called to order.

But when Shaffer, participating from her office at the Municipal Building, called the roll, Carpenter did not answer. She said his name again and moved on when she received no response.

As the meeting adjourned, a frustrated Carpenter knocked on Shaffer’s office door and was heard via the Teams app saying: “I was on; I was ignored; I was not allowed to ask questions. I’m right here.”

The Parkersburg News and Sentinel was participating via the Teams app as a backup in the event of issues with the live stream similar to the distorted video and audio from the April 21 meeting.

Before the call to order, with feedback mounting, Finance Director Eric Jiles had the audio temporarily muted to ask participants to be careful about too many people speaking at one time. When the audio resumed, he said, those joining by phone were prompted to press two buttons to unmute themselves.

Carpenter said he did that, but he was not heard again until after the meeting ended. Jiles said it appears Carpenter’s line remained muted.

“It’s unfortunate,” Jiles said.

Carpenter said he only realized no one could hear him after Reynolds asked if anyone else wanted to speak before the vote and didn’t acknowledge him.

“My whole district didn’t get a voice” in the meeting, Carpenter said.

Although he favors allowing people to email comments, Carpenter said he would have voted against the measure.

“With the changing parameters, there’s no reason to do this,” he said.

Carpenter can be heard knocking on Shaffer’s door as the YouTube video ends. Shaffer looks toward the door, and the councilman’s voice is briefly heard before the video stops.

Council will meet in regular session at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. A Finance Committee meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. that day. Both will be streamed on YouTube.

Evan Bevins can be reached at ebevins@newsandsentinel.com.

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