Since my first column, the City Council met specially on April 6, on eight hours notice, to consider a proposed emergency ordinance to set “social distancing” rules for city streets and property, with violators subject to civil fines.
Our meeting lasted 3½ hours and we voted to continue on April 8. Disposition of the ordinance is surely reported in today’s Daily News, at least online. This column just reports on the council’s April 6 votes.
Justifiably, some ask how our City Council could meet at all by teleconference. On March 12, the governor ordered that part of the commonwealth’s Open Meeting Law be suspended during the COVID-19 emergency, to allow “public bodies,” including city councils, to meet remotely.
If a municipal public body can show that because of “economic hardship” and “despite best efforts” it cannot provide the public with real-time telephonic access to its meetings, then the governor’s order allows it to post a transcript later on its website.
Our council is able to provide real-time public access by phone and internet. We have also been posting online the audio files of our meetings, the next day. As I wrote last time, on March 16 our City Council met by emergency teleconference to set that policy.
Also justifiably, some have further asked how — even if teleconference is allowed — our council could have held a special meeting on a few hours notice.
The Open Meeting Law and our charter both forbid public meetings on fewer than 48 hours notice, except in an emergency. Our charter makes the council president “sole judge” of whether such an emergency exists.
On April 6, I decided that the COVID-19 situation presents an emergency to warrant shortened notice, which went out about eight hours before we convened. I had made the same judgment in calling our March 16 meeting, that time on nine hours notice.
Unlike the policy we passed on March 16, our council cannot pass an ordinance on the same night of its introduction, unless we vote by two-thirds supermajority that an emergency exists. We also need to agree by two-thirds supermajority to set aside our rule that ordinances require two votes, at separate meetings, for adoption.
On April 6 — before the City Council reached the substance of the proposed social distancing law — we debated what our charter calls an emergency preamble. We passed it by a vote of 9-2, with Councilors Sharif Zeid and Joe Devlin arguing against and voting “no.”
Our council’s next regular meeting is set for April 13. The agenda and packet will be posted at https://www.cityofnewburyport.com/city-council.
Jared Eigerman is president of the Newburyport City Council.