TAMPA - They listened to a range of options, including widely-spaced physical meetings, but Tampa City Council members agreed Thursday to keep their distance during the coronavirus crisis until at least June.
After a 90-minute virtual meeting in which council members listened to Chief of Staff John Bennett and City Attorney Gina Grimes lay out the public health risks and legal challenges to holding City Council meetings, no one objected to Chairman Luis Viera’s plan to hold council meetings by phone beginning later this month if possible.
At the suggestion of land-use attorneys who said their clients wanted certainty about their development projects, the council also tentatively agreed to hold quasi-judicial hearings about zoning and other land-use issues at some point in June.
Even though Gov. Ron DeSantis recently issued an executive order allowing local governments to hold meetings and conduct official business without a physical quorum present, Grimes said she preferred to proceed with caution.
Trying to conduct quasi-judicial public hearings over the phone creates legal risks. How would the public comment? How would the city know for sure if witnesses were who they said they were? How would physical evidence be presented?
Technical glitches with public comment at Wednesday’s Hillsborough County Commission meeting demonstrates the difficulties. And creates a risk of lawsuits against the city, she said.
“Anyone challenging it, even after the fact, can claim actions taken can be invalidated. That’s why we’re trying to be so careful,” she said.
Council member John Dingfelder questioned if council needed to meet at all. He said Mayor Jane Castor was doing a good job keeping the city machinery running during the crisis.
“I’m not really convinced we are an essential service,” Dingfelder said.
Dingfelder later clarified he meant council meetings weren’t essential during the emergency in the same way fire fighters, police officers, wastewater workers or other critical services city employees are.
Many of his colleagues disagreed. Most argued they wanted to at least start limited meetings where they could vote on consent items, ordinances and other business as soon as possible.
“I’m ready to get back to work," said Joseph Citro.
But no one insisted on meeting in person — the only way to avoid the legal uncertainty of taking votes and holding hearings over the phone.
And they didn’t argue after Viera said the public health and legal risks made it risky to do so.
Later in the day, council members met as board members of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency. At that virtual meeting, they agreed to meet next week.
correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that the City Council, meeting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, canceled their April meeting. They will meet next week.
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