After the Kalispell City Council reopened its chambers to the public in early June, city officials have decided to hold the meetings via videoconference until further notice in response to dozens of unmasked community members entering council chambers.
On Aug. 3 and Aug. 19, officials were forced to reschedule and reformat city council meetings to videoconferences in order to comply with the statewide mask mandate, which went into effect on July 15.
“The consensus I’m hearing is we’re going to continue to move forward now (with videoconferencing),” Mayor Mark Johnson said.
While councilors agreed they would prefer to hold meetings in council chambers, they concluded it would not be possible if the public continues to gather unmasked.
“I want to get back to normal when we can but jumping back and forth is not productive either,” Councilor Chad Graham said. “We’re here, I don’t know how long we keep doing this … Hopefully in the next couple months we’ll be able to get back into the chambers.”
Other councilors wondered if there were alternative methods for the public to get involved beyond emailing public comments and watching the live-streamed meeting. Councilor Tim Kluesner suggested enhancing technology so that community members could join the Zoom meeting instead of only watching it.
Councilor Sandy Carlson asked if there was a way to enforce the mask policy, but City Manager Doug Russell said officials do not want conflicts to further escalate.
“You’ve seen that conflict around mask requirements and things of that nature,” Russell said. “That’s an option, but nobody wants to be part of an ugly situation … Personally I don’t want to put our staff in that type of position where they’re faced with that.”
Councilors Kari Gabriel and Kyle Waterman both expressed content with videoconferences and suggested the public could speak with councilors in their ward individually if they wish to participate in-person or unmasked.
“I think email is adequate,” Gabriel said. “I feel the system has worked and I feel like people have ample opportunity to participate.”
According to Russell, videoconferencing has been used in all First Class cities, or cities with at least 10,000 people, except for Great Falls. First Class cities include Billings, Missoula, Bozeman, Butte, Helena, Great Falls and Kalispell. He mentioned Belgrade has been experiencing similar issues with unmasked members of the public in council chambers.
City officials encourage people to submit public comments online at www.kalispell.com.