Besides the health and economic consequences of the coronavirus and the associated lockdowns, the COVID-19 pandemic also posed a special challenge for government bodies around the nation. With strict social distancing guidelines in place, how could the legislative business of government – which is supposed to take place at public meetings – proceed?
The implementation of national quarantine measures in mid-March meant that physical meetings involving the attendance of dozens of residents or more in a single enclosed place were no longer feasible. So like thousands of similar governmental bodies around the world, the Miami-Dade County Commission, under the direction of Chairwoman Audrey M. Edmonson, immediately canceled all its pending meetings. But the urgent need for legislation to address the coronavirus crisis, including the ratification of emergency measures taken by County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, also meant that Commissioners couldn't remain out of session for long without serious consequences for the community.
As Chairwoman Edmonson discussed the Commission's options with County attorneys, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued his March 20 executive order allowing local governments to hold meetings online for the duration of the state of emergency. The order cleared the way for the Commission to hold its first-ever virtual meeting on April 7 using the Zoom videoconferencing application, which allowed not only Commissioners and staff to attend virtually, but the public as well.
To ensure full access by the public, residents were given a number of options to participate and have their voices heard as at a regular meeting, including by leaving voice messages or sending emails to be played or read at the meeting, or by preregistering online to comment live on Zoom. The meeting also was broadcast live on Miami-Dade TV and the County's website as usual for anyone wishing to view the proceedings from home.
During the meeting, as Commissioners got used to the technology and its special challenges, they passed a number of important items dealing with COVID-19 – including ratifying Mayor Gimenez's emergency declaration orders and suspending water service disconnections and eviction operations in the County to help residents cope with the financial impacts of the shutdown.
The historic meeting was the first of many virtual meetings the Commission would hold over the course of the pandemic.
Chairwoman Audrey M. Edmonson
"The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated our ability as a government body to adapt. It was more important than ever to go on with the legislative business of the County so we could enact important measures to address the crisis."
Vice Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa
"Moving our meetings to a virtual platform protected public health while maintaining residents' ability to participate electronically and be heard on important items."
Commissioner Jean Monestime
"I am delighted that our new virtual online format was quickly adapted by our residents which fostered more public participation in our meetings. I am honored that our constituents have the opportunity to stay connected and engaged in the legislative process."
Commissioner Joe A. Martinez
"I applaud Gov. DeSantis for allowing municipal governments to meet online during the pandemic so we could keep holding Commission meetings while the state of emergency was in effect."
Commissioner José "Pepe" Díaz
"Our IT staff did a tremendous job putting these online meetings together while ensuring public accessibility."
Commissioner Javier D. Souto
"These are strange times we are living in, but the voters elected us to do a job, so we had to find new ways to use technology so we could keep taking care of the Commission's business."