Cities, Legislatures Learn to Govern by Conference Call

By: - March 26, 2020 12:00 am

Read Stateline coverage of the latest state action on coronavirus.

SEATTLE — Elected officials are figuring out Zoom just like the rest of us.

Some of the most important legislation states and cities enact to fight the coronavirus pandemic will be passed on grainy video chats or glitchy conference calls, using processes that have never been tested.

Policymakers around the country are quickly learning how — or whether — they can cast votes remotely, a method that could prove crucial to responding to the pandemic while maintaining social distancing guidelines.

The Seattle City Council has held meetings remotely since March 9, as Washington state suffered the earliest fallout from the virus. The Council passed bills to stop evictions of renters and small businesses, expand sick leave, bolster businesses and artists and provide relief to utility ratepayers — all while meeting over a Skype audio line. 

“There’s been some technological catch-up,” Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda admitted, “but the Council has been able to do its work in real time in a collaborative way in the last two weeks, and I don’t think being remote has hindered that.”

Several states passed rules to allow their legislatures or local governments to vote remotely, and lawmakers are testing video chat and teleconference technologies that might allow them to hold emergency votes from afar.

But some legislatures have found themselves bound by state constitutional rules that require them to meet in person, and officials at every level are debating whether virtual meetings comply with public access and transparency laws.

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Alex Brown
Alex Brown

Based in Seattle, Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline. Prior to joining Stateline, Brown wrote for The Chronicle in Lewis County, Washington state.