Gahanna City Council member Merisa Bowers said she plans to introduce a motion Monday, July 20, to improve public participation in future virtual council meetings.

"Participation by the public in their government is the backbone of American democracy," she said. "This includes being able to identify who is speaking, observing nonverbal communication and ensuring that a constituent's words are incorporated into the record."

Bowers, an at-large council member, said council must develop protocol, whether through technology or in person, that allows full participation in government.

"I will continue to address this issue with my colleagues," she said.

The issue was discussed during a July 6 council committee meeting.

Stephen Renner, Ward 1 council member, said he has working and will continue to work with council clerk April Beggerow on better ways for public participation.

Bowers said, in general, she thinks there's a loss when engaging in virtual meetings without having in-person or face-to-face interaction. She said she also understands the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is a public health crisis and measures are needed to keep everyone safe.

Brian Larick, Ward 3 council member, said council has changed its methodology, but public input has not been eliminated.

Council has been accepting public comment by email and, at times, reading materials submitted by the public.

Jamie Leeseberg, council president and Ward 4 representative, said he would be more than happy to work with Beggerow regarding opportunities for public input during virtual meetings.

"We continue to work on being more open and transparent with our meetings," he said. "We continue to work to get the information out in more and more ways."

Renner said council should have active public participation.

"If we're staying virtual, then my request is we rapidly figure out how to livestream and give the public real-time ability to interact with us," Renner said.

Beggerow said she conducted a survey of Ohio council clerks, asking if their city halls were open and if meetings still were being held virtually.

Of 51 respondents, 23 continue to meet virtually, 20 are meeting in person and eight are using hybrid methods.

Nineteen municipalities reported their city halls remain closed to the public, while 30 reported the buildings being open. Two didn't respond.

Gahanna City Hall, 200 S. Hamilton Road, reopened to the public July 6.

Visitors must sign in and wear a facial covering to enter.

On March 16, City Hall was closed to the public except by appointment only. Residents were asked to conduct business online or via phone.

Carrin Wester, city communications manager, said the parks and recreation front desk has been combined with the main front desk at City Hall.

She said all visitors to any city facility will need to sign in and are required to wear a mask and check in at the front desk for screening questions.

"We have been working on implementing new procedures to protect our own staff and visitors," Mayor Laurie Jadwin said. "Since the onset of COVID-19, my team and I have been working hard to keep the city running while still maintaining safety protocols."

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