Every cloud has a silver lining and even amid a pandemic, there have been positive outcomes as a result of the complete alteration of the American way of life.
For some, one of those silver linings has been an increased ability to access and participate in government doings, with governing bodies all across the United States offering their constituents options for attending their meetings remotely.
Here in Nye County, a teleconferencing system has been in place for over a year, having been established shortly after the onset of the restrictions that grew out of the immense concern swirling around COVID-19, and following a discussion between Nye County commissioners at their Tuesday, May 4 meeting, it was decided that Nye County will be retaining its teleconferencing system for at least another seven months.
The item was originally requested by Nye County Commission Chair Debra Strickland, who said she felt that with the changes recently made now that the county has been given local control over COVID-19 mitigation measures, including the lifting of social distancing requirements, she thought it was time to put the teleconference system to bed. However, after further discussion revealed concerns about those who cannot wear face masks, which are required in order to attend a meeting in person, not having access to the commission meetings, her perspective had changed and she was no longer keen to eliminate the option.
Nye County Commissioner Leo Blundo, on the other hand, had not changed his stance on the subject and he argued in favor of ending teleconferencing.
“Look, our mitigation plan was approved by the governor, the social distancing is out, we’re at 100% occupancy… So people are welcome. Get people back in here please. I don’t understand what we need the phone system for,” Blundo asserted.
“That’s what I was afraid of,” Strickland responded. “Because see, now what we have discovered today is, we need the phone system too. And I was hoping to simplify things by getting rid of the phone system but, what are we going to do about people who want to participate who have medical issues (and cannot wear masks)?”
“That was my concern,” commissioner Frank Carbone jumped in to add. “That’s the reason why I made the statement that I believe we still need to use it.”
Commissioner Bruce Jabbour was evidently against getting rid of the teleconference system as well, explaining that he believed it was in the best interest of the transparency for the public to keep it in place for now. “I don’t want to silence the people… We want to hear from them and I am in favor of the system,” Jabbour asserted.
Commissioner Donna Cox said she was of two minds when it came to the matter, on the one hand harboring concerns about the cost to use the system and on the other, feeling that it is advantageous for certain members of the public.
Blundo was not moved, however, telling his fellow commissioners, “I want to take the steps to move back to normal. Not the ‘new normal’, not the skewed, perverse universe that we all seem to be waking up in right now. I would like to take steps in getting back to normal.”
Strickland then noted that she believed the system was paid for through the end of the year, but Nye County Administrative Manager Samantha Tackett, who runs the teleconference system during each meeting, clarified that this was not exactly accurate. She explained that the county is currently under contract with LogMeIn/Open Voice Audio Service until December 17 and the payments associated with the system are based on usage. “If we use nothing, we pay $300 per month just to hold the line,” Tackett detailed.
When asked by the Pahrump Valley Times to detail the fee schedule for use of the system, Tackett said that the county pays $0.0456 per caller per minute, so the cost of each meeting varies, depending on how many people call in and how long the meeting lasts.
During the May 4 meeting, Tackett told commissioners there were 14 callers on the line, around 10 of which were county staff members. This prompted Blundo to point out that county staff and commission members had already had the ability to take part in the meetings via the phone before the pandemic and would continue to be able to do so if the teleconference system were terminated. However, members of the public would have no other option than to attend the meetings in person if that were the route the commission decided to take, and this was the crux of the situation for several of the commissioners.
“The only other thing would be that if we still have a mask issue, and people want to attend the meeting and they can’t wear a mask as they actually are privy to have the right… to attend without a mask, due to fact that they have a disability of some kind, or a problem, then they are not going to have an option but to come here,” Cox said.
Half a dozen members of the public chimed in on the discussion as well, the majority of whom expressed their complete support for the teleconferencing option.
Helene Williams provided an example of how the system is a benefit to the public by using her own experience as an example. In September 2020 Williams said she had surgery on her foot and she was delighted to be able to take part in the meetings despite her lack of mobility. “It was wonderful to be able to participate online (over the phone) with the commissioners on issues of concern to me,” Williams stated. “And I just feel that it opens the door to more ability by the commissioners to represent the community by keeping this open.”
Dee Mounts of Battle Born Patriots added that the system has been a “savior” for many local citizens, noting that she had taken a poll and all those she spoke with were in favor of having the ability to call in to speak at a meeting.
Tim Bohannon said he was highly supportive of teleconferencing as well, stating, “This is a very effective tool that helps reach citizens who may not be able to make it to the meeting, may not physically be able to be there or other reasons. It gives that connection between the commission and the people that helps strengthen the community.”
Bolstering Bohannon’s view of the situation, Amargosa resident John Bosta remarked that there are more than 120 homebound individuals in Amargosa Valley alone. “If you continue the telephone, those homebound people would be able to listen to and participate in the meeting,” Bosta said, noting that keeping the system for the more rural areas of Nye County would be key.
Regular meeting attendee Ammie Nelson raved about the teleconferencing system, telling commissioners she simply loves the option. “I’m one of those people who can’t really make it in there all the time,” Nelson stated. “It’s just a perfect tool for those of us who have a difficult time, and the rural areas.”
The conversation then returned to commissioners, with Blundo stating, “I appreciate wanting to keep open lines of communication for people who are homebound, this, that and the other thing, but how is that different than what is was a couple years ago?” He then reiterated that he just wants to get back to normal, but he was unable to sway his colleagues.
Blundo attempted a compromise of sorts, making a motion not to do away with the system but to have the item reheard at the second meeting in July. That motion was voted down 2-3, with commissioners Blundo and Cox in favor of rehearing the item and Strickland, Carbone and Jabbour against.
As mentioned at the meeting, the future of the teleconference system after the existing contract comes to an end in December will likely be a subject of debate for commissioners as that contract expiration date nears.
Contact reporter Robin Hebrock at firstname.lastname@example.org