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Brief council meeting follows guidelines

Just over three months ago, the Suffolk City Council held regular meetings that were filled to capacity and overflowed into the hallway of City Hall.

So it was a surreal moment Tuesday afternoon to see social distancing measures implemented for council’s special meeting to vote on measures related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead of council members sitting next to one another, there was an extra space left between them. And instead of City Manager Patrick Roberts, City Attorney Helivi Holland and Police Chief Thomas Bennett sitting in their normal spots, Roberts and Holland sat in front of the podium reserved for staff presentations and public speakers, while Bennett stood between his normal spot and the public seating.

Members of the public were not allowed to sit in the first three rows, and blue tape marked the seats where people were allowed to sit. The chamber was also disinfected and cleaned both before and after the meeting.

Including council members, city staff, media and members of the public, there were 21 people in the chamber during the nine-minute meeting.

Quickly and unanimously, council adopted a resolution to confirm the declaration of local emergency, an ordinance to formally remove the e-check and charge card convenience fees for online transactions, and an emergency ordinance to allow for electronic council meetings, which will be in effect for at least 90 days. Council can amend, rescind or re-adopt the time period for the emergency ordinance to be in effect, but that period cannot last for more than six months.

The council then voted to meet at 7 p.m. April 15 either electronically or at City Hall. That date is when Roberts is expected to introduce the proposed city budget for the next fiscal year. Council meetings that had been scheduled for March 18 and April 1 had already been canceled.

Roberts said Monday the decision about the type of meeting to be held would depend on the state of any local emergency, or any federal or state order.

According to the emergency ordinance, notice of the meeting will be provided to the public “as soon as practical,” but at least three days prior to the meeting. Instructions for how residents can participate in scheduled public hearings for electronic meetings will be put into the public notice of the electronic meeting.

The emergency ordinance states that “any such electronic meeting of the Council shall state on its agenda and at the beginning of such meeting that it is being held pursuant to and in compliance with this ordinance” and “identify council members physically and/or electronically present.

For public hearings during an electronic meeting, the city can solicit public comment in advance by phone, email, first-class postal mailing, city drop-off box “or like technology that will allow the most receipt of reasonably effective public input.”

The emergency ordinance does not prohibit council from holding in-person public meetings as long as public health and safety measures, as well as social distancing, are factored into them.

“Stay safe,” Mayor Linda T. Johnson said. “Practice social distancing, and, above all, follow the governor’s orders.”