For the first time since March 2020, Woodside council members sat together in the same room during their meeting Tuesday, Sept. 14. Mayor Brian Dombkowski said it felt good to get "back in the saddle — to use a Woodside reference."
With a new hybrid model, the Town Council will meet in person going forward, with audience members watching from home or in person themselves. During this meeting, three council members attended in person, while four attended virtually, said City Clerk Jennifer Li.
"I think it will create the most accessible local government in the history of Woodside," Dombkowski said. "We are on the front end of this and other town staffs have come to check out the technology and may use us as spearhead on this. … I love that we're in a leadership position."
Dombkowski said the council has spent 18 months in a remote environment, but planned for the eventuality of returning to meeting in person in the spring. Holding online meetings was made possible by an executive order from Gov. Gavin Newsom in June that waived certain provisions in the state's open meetings laws. The order was set to expire Sept. 30, at which point local governments would largely have to return to in-person meetings that are open to the public. Newsom signed Assembly Bill 361 into law last week, extending the order to apply when governments declare a state of emergency.
The town spent $43,000 on audiovisual equipment from Coda Technology Group to enable the Town Hall conference room to function as a "Zoom Room"; to replace the existing projector with a laser projector in Independence Hall; and to add streaming/recording equipment and outdoor speakers, according to a report prepared by staff.
Staff found, through discussions with other San Mateo County city clerks, that Coda Technology Group has installed audiovisual systems for other local governments, including Redwood City, San Mateo, Santa Rosa, Novato and Vallejo. After contacting Coda, staff found that many cities and towns likewise are rapidly adopting a hybrid meeting model and that the Zoom Room is the current option of choice.
The 2020-21 budget includes $140,000 for information technology equipment and building improvements, of which $44,000 remains. The approved equipment upgrades for Independence Hall were supported by these budgeted funds.
The budget includes $60,000 for general office supplies in the overhead department. Due to COVID-19 and the by-appointment business model at Town Hall, office supply expenditures are projected to be at $30,000 for the full fiscal year. This $30,000 savings, in addition to a projected $20,000 in budget surplus in administration contractual services, would cover the cost of additional Zoom Room expenses.
Dombkowski said he hopes other towns follow Woodside's lead, as it's a "great way to get access without having to spend your evening until 11 p.m." in council chambers. He said he's seen a different set of people attending meetings since residents have been able to tune in from home, allowing for more voices to be heard by the council.
"The silver lining from the remote operating environment is that a much more diverse group of people were able to participate in, and have their voices heard, in the local government process," he said. "We're taking the best of both worlds: the technology and the communication and problem-solving you can only get from the in-person experience."