North Hills municipalities differ on need to cancel public meetings to curb coronavirus spread
Tuesday, March 17, 2020 | 5:33 PM
Officials in several North Hills municipalities have decided to proceed with public voting meetings with some restrictions to reduce the chances of spreading the coronavirus while others are taking a more cautious tact by canceling the gatherings altogether.
Ross commissioners kept residents out of the municipal building for its March 16 meeting until 15 minutes before it was scheduled to begin. People attending were asked to practice “social distancing” and stay 3 to 6 feet apart and bottles of hand sanitizer were placed throughout the building.
The board’s first action was to issue an emergency declaration, which eases some of the restrictions on the township if the scope of the pandemic escalates, including suspension of the bidding requirements to buy emergency materials or hire temporary employees if it becomes necessary, board President Steve Korbel said following the meeting.
While a seven-day emergency declaration can be made “on the spot” by the board president or town manager if the need arises, Ross officials did not want to “wait until something happens” to take action, Korbel said.
The declaration activates the township’s emergency management team, which will meet regularly to chart out the municipality’s response to the pandemic.
“The idea is to be proactive and have everybody looking into how we handle a multitude of issues if things get worse,” Korbel said.
Here are some of the steps other communities in the North Hills are taking to ensure that public services are provided.
Town of McCandless
Town officials have canceled all upcoming meetings scheduled for council and its boards, but steps are being taken to ensure that business can still be conducted, said manager Bob Grimm.
“We met with developers of upcoming projects on March 9 and received an OK from them to extend the timetable for council to vote on the plans,” he said.
By law, municipalities must adhere to a timetable within which they vote on projects or ask developers to extend the time.
The town already has approved this year’s contracts for paving work as well as payments for goods and services, which must be approved in public, Grimm said.
While the township has not yet issued an emergency declaration, Grim said the document “is ready to go” if needed.
“We are adjusting to how we do business,” Grimm said, adding that plans are being developed for how the township will continue to provide services if it is ordered to “shut down completely.”
“We met yesterday to talk about everything from impact on the schools and ambulance authority to public safety and the management of supplies.”
Borough manager Rege Ebner said public meetings will be conducted as scheduled, but steps are being taken to guard the health of those who attend.
In addition to following “social distancing” guidelines at its March 18 council meeting, items that typically draw the largest number of residents such as development projects, have been postponed.
“We’ve asked the developers to allow us to postpone action on their projects until April,” he said, adding that all non-essential business will be removed from the agendas to shorten the meeting time.
Ebner said the borough has discussed issuing an emergency declaration but “we don’t feel a need for it at this time.”
Township officials plan to proceed with its meetings in March but will require residents to practice social distancing.
All non-essential business also is being eliminated from the agenda to reduce the length of the meetings.
“The feeling here was that we can’t ask our employees to show up for work when our elected officials aren’t holding their meetings,” said manager Tim Rogers.
Rogers said the township issued an emergency declaration on March 14 “primarily for the purposes of being able to take action if it is required.”
Rogers said township officials have been meeting with staff and various groups, including local businesses, so the township can develop a coordinated response if there is an increase in the number of coronavirus cases.
Richland has canceled all its public meetings for March, but already is planning for alternative ways to conduct township business, said manager Dean Bastianini.
“There was nothing on the planning commission or board of supervisors agendas that had a deadline for a vote,” he said. “We obtained the consent from two applicants (for development projects) to waive the deadline.”
Bastianini said while township officials have not voted to approve a paving contract for this year, the township has up to 60 days to take action without a change to the bid price occurring.
He said the township has the technology for the supervisors to meet via video link, but it does not yet have a way for a meeting to be held using video that meets the legal requirement that the public have a way to view and comment on the actions taken.
“Moving forward, we will look for a way for us to have the meetings digitally that complies with giving people an opportunity to participate,” he said.
Manager Chris Lochner said the township has the ability to continue holding its public meetings while at the same time keeping people apart from each other to lessen the chances of spreading the coronavirus.
“We have a 51,000-square-foot community center with two huge great rooms,” he said. “We can conduct the meetings by audio and have residents in the rooms but away from each other.”
Lochner said the system has been used in the past when council members have been out of town and “could be utilized in this situation.”
“We want to try to take advantage of technology as much as possible to eliminate the need for face-to-face meetings,” he said. “I think it’s important to continue a level of normalcy during this unusual situation.”
Pine Township supervisors held their regular monthly voting meeting on March 16 but modified the seating arrangement in the assembly room to create distance between people attending, said manager Scott Anderson.
The meeting also allowed the board to award its paving contract in time for the spring construction season.
While the board plans to meet in April, it will only conduct one public meeting instead of two to reduce the time people will have to gather, he said.
To limit daily contact between employees and the public, residents are being asked to handle township business by telephone or email if possible.
Drop-off bins also have been placed in the vestibule of the municipal building for people who want to submit documents or paperwork in person, the manager said.
In response to recommendations from the Allegheny Health Department, officials have canceled all upcoming public meetings through at least early April.
While all township parks are open, facilities such as playgrounds, tennis courts, basketball courts and the disc golf course are shut down. All recreation programs also have been suspended.
The municipal building also is closed for all nonessential business.
Township officials could not be reached to discuss alternative ways for township officials to meet and vote on items that must be done at a public meeting.