City Urges Virtual Meetings for Others, But Its Own Meetings Must Be In-Person

Even as Lakeland city commissioners prepare to urge organizations to prioritize virtual meetings over in-person gatherings, the city is still scheduling plenty of in-person meetings at City Hall. But that could change soon, according to Mayor Bill Mutz.

On Tuesday, commissioners are expected to approve a resolution that “recommends and urges in the strongest possible terms” that residents and businesses practice social distancing, use virtual meeting technology, wear face coverings, and practice hand hygiene.

But the city still has plenty of in-person meetings planned. A municipal boards calendar issued Friday lists 17 gatherings scheduled to take place at City Hall in the next month — and that doesn’t include a handful of meetings commissioners have scheduled for City Hall or the RP Funding Center during the same period.

The reason the city is still holding in-person meetings is because they have been decreed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, Mutz said.

The governor had allowed government boards to hold virtual meetings during the summer as COVID-19 numbers started increasing. But he let that permission expire on Nov. 1, requiring any meeting where a vote will be taken to be held in person.

Mutz said he has asked the governor to reverse that decision in light of the growing number of COVID-19 cases in Florida and high positivity rate of testing. He said DeSantis may be considering a new executive order on public meetings.

But if there is no revised executive order, Mutz said, he is willing to see if a majority of commissioners will follow the lead of Florida cities that have found ways to hold virtual meetings.

Some governmental boards in the state have begun hosting meetings in which a quorum of board members meets in person and the rest of the board and the public joins in using virtual-meeting technology, according to the Sarasota Herald Tribune.

Several south Florida cities, including Aventura, Bal Harbour and Boca Raton, have continued holding virtual meetings, arguing that is their right under home rule authority when the city has issued an emergency declaration, the newspaper reported.

It’s the latter approach that Mutz said he would ask other commissioners about if the governor doesn’t issue a new executive order.

In recent months, the City Commission has held its formal twice-a-month meetings in person, usually at City Hall but occasionally at the RP Funding Center. Tuesday’s 3 p.m. meeting is being held at Sikes Hall in the RP Funding Center because a large crowd is expected to come and oppose plans for apartments near the entrance to Carillon Lakes.

The agenda-study sessions commissioners hold prior to their regular meetings have been held using GoToMeeting software rather than in person since no formal votes are taken during agenda studies.

Likewise, the board that oversees the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority, a quasi-governmental agency with taxing authority over downtown property owners, is holding its meeting this Thursday virtually since no formal votes are planned.

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