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TAMPA — The last time the City Council met on March 12, it was a brief affair.
Although only handful of coronavirus cases had been confirmed in Florida, concern was mushrooming about the speed of infection rates. In the interest of public safety, Council Chairman Luis Viera called a vote to shut down the meeting before public hearings could be conducted.
Only council members John Dingfelder and Bill Carlson objected, as did a few people who had arrived at City Hall for various projects that needed council approval.
Since then, Mayor Jane Castor, under emergency powers she assumed the same day, has been approving the contracts and other items necessary to keep the machinery of city government working. Her administration has been keeping council members informed about which items the mayor is executing or deferring — but they haven’t voted on any of them.
Viera sent a March 16 memo to his colleagues canceling council meetings for the following month. But Viera said Friday that a recent executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis authorizing virtual meetings has changed things.
Viera said he’d like to convene virtual council meetings — where the seven members would call in to a group online platform — as soon as possible. He’s hoping to hold the first meeting before April 16.
“I’d like to do so as soon as it’s legally and technically feasible," Viera said. “It’s not as easy as just banging a gavel.”
To vote on consent items like contracts is one thing, but to hold public hearings with witnesses and allow public comment is more difficult, Viera said. He’s been working with the city legal staff to find a solution.
On Friday, Viera met with Chief of Staff John Bennett to work out the next steps.
On Tuesday, council members will gather by phone for a briefing on Castor’s response to the coronavirus. On Thursday, they’ll meet again virtually to talk about how to proceed with future meetings.
Viera sees three challenges: the technical feasibility, staff availability and the legality of conducting any quasi-judicial hearings on zoning or land-use issues.
The administration will report to council members if they feel staff will be able to take time away from emergency duties to provide reports to council members. They’ll also brief council members about whether meetings can be held virtually and what platform — Facebook Live, YouTube, the city website or some other platform — would provide the best way to provide public access to the proceedings.
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The administration will also report to council members about their legal opinion on whether land-use and public hearings can be conducted virtually.
“This is a good plan so we can get back to the public’s business as quickly as we can,” Viera said.
For his part, Viera has already held a virtual Town Hall to discuss challenges to small businesses during the shutdown. He has another planned with school board member Steve Cona to address issues for families with special needs in early April.
Viera isn’t the only Hillsborough elected official who has figured out a way to conduct public business during the crisis.
The county’s Emergency Policy Group has been holding meetings online through the county’s Facebook page and YouTube channel, among other platforms. And Castor has been holding regular Facebook Live appearances on the city’s Facebook page.
Council member Carlson also wants to get back to work. He says his South Tampa constituents have been asking for information about how the city is handling the outbreak. Council members should meet by phone to evaluate the mayor’s actions, he said.
He’d also like to get back to hearing land-use issues and public hearings for projects of all sizes, he said.
“We’ve got to keep the economy moving,” he said.
When asked for his opinion, council member Orlando Gudes issued a statement saying he “stands with Chairman Viera.”
Gudes said council members should discuss how to move forward while not being able to conduct in-person meetings.
That’s how it should work, Castor said in a Friday Facebook Live appearance.
“Whatever they decide, I’m fine with,” she said.
Hillsborough County meetings have been canceled until mid-April. Across the bay, St. Petersburg’s City Council held its last meeting on March 12. Future meetings have been canceled through April 9. In Clearwater, the council last met March 18 to close the city’s beach.
Next week, Clearwater City Council members are scheduled to meet in person for a ceremonial meeting to welcome the new members and commemorate the members leaving the board. After that, the city will transition to virtual meetings.
Times Staff Writers Kirby Wilson, Josh Solomon and Anastasia Dawson contributed to this report.
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