The Piatt County board meeting Wednesday ended as soon as it began because there were not enough board members on the Zoom call to conduct business.
Present were County Board Chairman Ray Spencer, Bob Murrell and Randy Shumard. Absent were Shannon Carroll, Dale Lattz and Renee Fruendt.
Carroll said he “didn't feel comfortable” attending until it is determined whether remote meetings are still allowed after a court ruling last week ruled the governor's executive orders had expired. One part of those orders allowed remote meetings as a safety precaution during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If we reschedule for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, we'll have enough information on whether we need a (county) bylaw change,” said Carroll.
Piatt County State's Attorney Dana Rhoades had sent out an email Sunday evening with her opinion that Zoom meetings were no longer allowed unless the board amends its meetings bylaws. Wednesday's agenda had already been posted, so the board likely could not consider the bylaw addition at that session
“I am not against them,” Rhoades said of remote meetings. “It may be the safest way to go. I don't dispute that. What I am saying is we need to make an amendment (to the county code) so we can have that flexibility.”
Spencer got the feeling some board members were worried about getting sued should they attend, noting the state's attorney's office has filed two complaints against board members this year. One was to procure additional funds for the county emergency management agency during the COVID-19 pandemic. The other was an Open Meetings Act complaint in May. The first was settled out of court. An independent prosecutor will decide the fate of the second.
“I think the board members are gun shy,” said Spencer.
“I don't want to speak for them (absent board members), but it was not a lack of civic obligation on their part, or ignoring their duties. I think it all stems from a veiled threat from the state's attorney's office and the fear they may be charged with a crime since she said no Zoom meetings,” he added.
Carroll said, in his case, he did not attend because “I didn't want to be in a position to do something wrong.” He added that a few extra days of planning, in which the board could possibly hold an in-person meeting, would be worth the wait.
When asked for his opinion, DeWitt/Piatt Bi-County Health Department Administrator David Remmert advised hybrid meetings – in-person plus Zoom – as an option now that the state is in Phase 4 of the recovery plan.
“I've got a copy of the state guidance, I've got a copy of what Dave Remmert sent out, and we're going to try to put it together the best we can. It seems like we need to have an in-person meeting, but have an option for people who don't want to be around large groups of people to call in,” said Spencer.
Rhoades said she is trying to keep the county out of legal trouble, and said she is available to draft the remote meeting bylaw addition if asked.
“I haven't heard from anybody to say 'yes, Dana we want to do this, so I don't know that the plan is,” she said. “I told them, let me know if you want me to prepare the paperwork'.”
Lack of quorum is rare
A lack of quorum at county board meetings. The J-R could not find a record of it occurring in the past eight years.
Committee meetings have been canceled though, including a liquor commission one Tuesday. There were also zoning board of appeals meetings that could not be held in 2015 and 2016 when not enough board members were present.
The City of Monticello experienced quorum issues with its planning commission and zoning board in 2014 when three meetings were canceled. It led to the combining of those two boards that year.