Duluth city council cites climate and drive time in bid to resume remote meetings

Ah, the good old days of the pandemic, when Gov. Tim Walz’s emergency authority waived the public meeting laws, empowering state and local governments to hold official meetings online without direct contact with their constituents. As the League of Minnesota Cities points out, many elected officials got used to the convenience of not having to go through the motions of showing up at city hall.

Although the governor’s state of emergency for COVID-19 has ended, some city councils — and their residents — have become so comfortable with the convenience of online meetings that they want to continue them.

The Duluth City Council stands out as one of the most prominent local governments that longs to return to the remote meetings of the Covid-era. The News Tribune reports that city hall has taken its quest to reinstate remote council meetings to the next level.

Local officials are advocating for a change in state law that could make it easier for city boards, commissions and possibly the City Council to meet and conduct business remotely, even in post-pandemic times.

On Monday night, the Duluth City Council voted unanimously in support of a request to change Minnesota’s open meetings law.

Under the Minnesota Open Meeting Law, city council members must attend in person to vote and conduct business. While local governments could technically meet remotely, as the LMC website points out, the rules for doing so effectively make it a non-starter.

One of the biggest concerns with using interactive technology is that members participating remotely must do so from a location that is open to the public. This means that if a member is taking part in a meeting from their home, the member must provide their address in the public notice and allow the public to attend the meeting from the home.

But without the coronavirus as a foil, the city council had to identify a new threat to justify their campaign to weaken state law limiting remote meetings in the public interest. Make that a list of threats — e.g., the commuting time to city hall — that some might view as self-serving as much as anything else.

At large Councilor Therese Tomanek said there are four reasons she supports the change:

The occasional difficulty of attaining the quorum of board or committee members required to conduct official business

The challenges some people with disabilities encounter when trying to access City Hall

Equity issues with people needing to sacrifice not only meeting time but commuting time

And sustainability, as driving to a meeting typically results in additional carbon emissions.

More than enough grounds evidently for the Duluth City Council to unanimously approve supporting legislation in St. Paul to allow cities to return to the convenience of online meetings without the pandemic or masks. But proponents may have to come up with a stronger argument than poor attendance at council meetings or long commute times in order to prevail.