By Eve Newman, For Cowboy State Daily
More than two-and-a-half years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Laramie City Council continues to close its public meetings to in-person attendance and meet only remotely.
As the only city council or county commission in Wyoming that continues to hold online-only public meetings, Laramie’s council members continue to defend the practice in the name of public health.
Meanwhile, some Laramie residents are growing increasingly frustrated with a prolonged prohibition from meeting with local government officials face-to-face long past the time other public bodies in Wyoming have resumed meeting in person.
Residents have protested outside Laramie City Council chambers a half-dozen times in the last six months and say the practice has fueled the perception that councilors have insulated themselves from public scrutiny.
During the council’s Oct. 4 meeting, council member Bryan Shuster introduced a motion that would have allowed the council to use a hybrid format during its meetings, still allowing councilors themselves the option of joining remotely while allowing the public to comment in person or via Zoom.
“There are people outside right now,” he said during the meeting, which he attended from City Hall.
During a phone conversation later, Shuster told Cowboy State Daily that residents have protested outside City Hall six times since last summer. At that time, they had wanted to comment about a controversial city plan to reduce minimum lot size requirements in some neighborhoods.
“It’s upset me a lot,” Shuster said. “If you want to be a representative of the public, you need to be in the public.”
Shuster’s motion was defeated by a 7-2 vote.
Until ‘Declared’ End Of Pandemic
The council passed a resolution in April 2020 allowing councilors to meet virtually, with subsequent resolutions passed in January 2021 and 2022 requiring that council members, city staff and members of the public attend meetings and work sessions only by phone or web conference.
The resolution will remain in effect until rescinded by the council or “the end of the COVID-19 pandemic is declared.”
Laramie Mayor Paul Weaver did not return a phone call seeking comment, but he did provide a lengthy defense of the practice during the Oct. 4 meeting.
Weaver said the COVID-19 pandemic is still going on, complaints about public access to meetings belong solely to a vocal minority and meetings are accessible to more people when they’re conducted online.
“A small sample of individuals have prioritized this for their own reasons,” Weaver said of the complaints about not allowing in-person attendance.
He said he didn’t understand the complaint that public speaking was restricted, but that the council provides “adequate — and frankly generous — public comment options.”
Wyoming law allows government meetings to be conducted remotely or virtually if the public can follow the meeting’s discussion in real time. Communication by members can happen outside such channels if it’s not being conducted that way to circumvent the spirit of open meeting laws.
Anyone wishing to follow a Laramie City Council meeting can watch live via YouTube, Zoom or local cable. Anyone who wants to participate can join the Zoom meeting and wait for the mayor to request comment on agenda items.
Public comment on non-agenda items is limited to 30 minutes per meeting and requests should be made by 3 p.m. the day of the meeting. If more than 10 requests to comment on non-agenda items are received, they’ll be assigned by random drawing.
2020 Police Protests
Shuster said the lottery practice was instituted during the summer of 2020 because commenters were queuing up in large numbers to complain about local police practices in wake of national protests.
Residents do not have their video enabled, even when speaking, because of a one-time incident when inappropriate material made its way into a meeting.
Weaver said public participation in council meetings has only increased since they became all-virtual. Shuster said any increase in public comment was from people commenting that meetings should be held in person.
Councilor Erin O’Dougherty said Laramie’s council chambers lack adequate ventilation, and in-person meetings would endanger staff.
“I have a choice to come, but our staff doesn’t have a choice,” she said.
Councilor Sharon Cumbie, the council’s liaison to the Laramie Board of Health, said she’s anticipating an increase in COVID-19 in the community as the weather turns from fall to winter.
“Though our community is doing well, I think the bottom line is we don’t know quite yet if it’s over,” she said.
Councilor Fred Schmechel said he didn’t believe complaints about the difficulty of accessing a virtual meeting.
“I’m curious how driving down to a meeting and sitting around waiting as we talk about something is just as convenient as making a phone call and listening in and doing those things at home,” he said.
Councilor Jayne Pearce, who works in online and continuing education at the University of Wyoming, said research shows that meetings function best if conducted either totally in person or totally online.
A hybrid format might require additional city staff to manage, she said.
“This hybrid idea is truly confusing, and frankly not recommended,” she said.
‘Pretty Lame Responses’
Tom Mattimore, a local business owner who also serves on the city’s planning commission, said the virtual format is breeding distrust of government officials and violates the spirit of open meeting laws.
“You get no interaction with other members of the audience,” he said. “You get no face-to-face recognition of the other people who are on the council. Other people can’t even see who’s in the meeting.”
Mattimore said older residents struggle to manage Zoom technology, while the council has had more than two years to address ventilation problems.
“We had some pretty lame responses from the mayor and some of the members,” he said.
He reported seeing council members around Laramie not wearing masks, including one who attended a recent public campaign event as she seeks another term on the council.
“I think at this point there’s no rational reason to keep this up,” he said.
Important Decisions Made Virtually
During its virtual sessions, the council has hired a new chief of police, instituted a rental unit registry, voted down civilian oversight of the police department and is developing an urban renewal authority, among other projects.
Resident Terence Benson is frustrated about not being able to see anyone else at meetings, express any facial emotions or provide hand gestures while commenting on important issues.
“I’m concerned about any time when government seems to look like they are walling themselves off from the people,” he said. “Sometimes these things start looking like a cover for transparency in government.”
Question Of Transparency
Darcie Hoffland, executive director of the Wyoming Press Association, sent a letter to the Laramie City Council earlier this month after multiple Laramie residents contacted her about no in-person meetings.
The letter asks the council to return to meeting in-person for the good of the council and public.
“Continuing to meet remotely is bad policy and only raises the suspicion that the Council does not value input from its constituents or trust them to be part of the process,” the letter says.
Hoffland said she surveyed Wyoming Press Association members across the state, and none reported any public body that isn’t now meeting in person.
A Suspicious Argument
As to the argument that public participation is enhanced if meetings are remote, Hoffland was skeptical.
“I guess if that was the case, I wouldn’t be getting phone calls from people in Laramie that say they don’t feel like they’re getting the access to their officials that they’re owed,” she said.
She said no councilors responded to the letter or to her questions about the comment process.
Bruce Moats, a Cheyenne attorney who represents members of the WPA and specializes in open government and First Amendment issues, said remote meetings have their place when necessary, but it’s hard to make an argument that they’re better than meeting in person.
“It does beg a question about the need for this and whether it results in a lack of the public’s ability to observe the proceedings — to the extent that it might violate the law,” he said.
Four seats on the Laramie City Council are up for election in November, with only incumbent Erin O’Doherty running for re-election.