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Niles council debates resumption of in-person meetings

NILES — City Council has been exploring options to resume meeting in person under state guidelines, but has yet to agree to a solution.

In mid-March council voted to suspend regular in-person meetings until further notice amid COVID-19 concerns. The legislative body has been operating since by having special meetings by conference calls, but the format does not include a platform for public comment.

During Wednesday’s meeting, council President Robert Marino proposed using the gymnasium at the Niles City Schools Administration building on North Rhodes Avenue to make a partial return to in-person meetings. Council’s usual meeting place in the Niles Municipal Court is not a viable meeting place under current restrictions, as it could not accommodate social distancing, and the Ohio Supreme Court is requiring the wearing of masks in court chambers.

The school district space allows for 10 people to meet while adhering to social-distancing guidelines and could accommodate the eight-person council, the council clerk and the mayor. Other city officials, including the law director and the city auditor, would join the meeting by virtual means.

“The school district has been very, very, very open-minded and accommodating working with us to move forward in addressing our concerns,” said Marino, who said as a part of the deal, the district would equip council with the technology needed to stream its meetings so the public could watch. He said he thought it was the city’s best option going forward.

The catch — using the space would cost council. The amount is unknown, as Marino told council members he is waiting to get direction from them on whether he and law director Phil Zuzolo should proceed in making arrangements.

The proposal was met with mixed feelings from council members.

“I would respectfully disagree with your assertion that this is our best option,” Councilman Ryan McNaughton said to Marino. He said the city previously explored using the online platform GoToMeeting, which would allow the public to see council members through video conferencing. McNaughton said initial conversations about using the platform were met with silence.

“Moving forward, to me, that is the safe, easy alternative that already exists for us to see each other, communicate, and to let the public view and watch us,” McNaughton said. He said with video conferencing, the city would not have to pay to use and then clean a facility.

Marino said the problem with GoToMeeting is making sure all city officials have the proper hardware — laptops or desktops with working cameras — to use the platform effectively.

Councilwoman Linda Marchese wasn’t opposed to resuming in-person meetings, but said it would make more sense to meet in a city-owned location, where council would not have to pay to use the space.

Previous ideas for council meeting places included the Niles Wellness Center, but the area is not equipped with technology needed to stream meetings for the public.

Councilman Doug Sollitto was in favor of utilizing the school district space.

“We need a sense of normalcy,” Sollitto said. “City council is meeting all across the state. They’ve opened up. We cannot just sit at home and use COVID-19 as an excuse to do it.”

If council were to resume regular meetings at the school administration building or another location, public comment on agenda items likely would be taken electronically beforehand through a link on the city website. Questions on agenda items collected before the meeting would be directed toward the chairperson of the committee that sponsored the legislation, and other questions would be directed to the most appropriate party.

“I believe very strongly in the public being allowed to engage their elected officials,” Marino said. He added that the community should be able to see council.

Ultimately, the choice on how to proceed lies with the four ward council members and three councilmen-at-large.

Councilman Al Cantola, who suggested all communications to council and meeting minutes should be made available online, said council likely would need to have a roundtable to discuss its options further.

Zuzolo pointed out although finding a location to meet may seem simple, many factors are at play — including orders from the Ohio Department of Health, the Ohio Supreme Court and open meetings law.

“We’ve got to balance all of these different things,” said Zuzolo. “It’s not as easy as it may seem.”

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