Jonesboro City Council Holds First Online Meeting Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

By Chase Gage
Delta Digital News Service

JONESBORO – Amid a global pandemic and the aftermath of a natural disaster, the city of Jonesboro had somewhat of a return to normalcy with a remote city council meeting Tuesday night.

The meeting was the first held since the state of Arkansas declared a national emergency regarding COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus. It was also the first meeting held since an EF3 tornado tore through Jonesboro on March 28.

“Before we get started, I’d like to take a moment to praise the people of Jonesboro and the workers for the City of Jonesboro. We’ve been through a lot as a citizenry and a government,” Jonesboro Mayor Harold Perrin said in his opening statement. “The citizens of Jonesboro have been strong and come to each other’s rescue. We are a loving people.”

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The Jonesboro City Council held their meeting virtually amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The new format led to a unique viewer experience, though. it had its faults as well. Screenshot by Chase Gage.

It was far from a typical city council meeting, though, as the members were forced to meet online via video chat in response to social distancing policies in effect across the state and nation. The meeting was then broadcast on local television and Facebook Live so citizens could attend and participate from home.

Residents had several communication options for the meeting, including a special phone line and email address to contact as well as live comments on Facebook during the meeting.

The shift came with a handful of downfalls, as technical difficulties plagued some segments of the meeting. Resident participation was also relatively limited compared to in-person participation, but the council seemingly did the best they could with their available options.

“The coronavirus and tornado have created a new landscape, and our duty is to adjust. I ask for patience as we do so. This is not a new future, it is simply a temporary fix,” Perrin said on the shift to online meetings. “It isn’t going to be perfect. Any change this drastic is going to have glitches, so please be kind and patient.”

Councilman Gene Vance said several improvements needed to be made for the council to continue to hold online meetings, adding that he struggled to hear other members even with his volume cranked up.

Virtually all members of the council were adamant in praising the emergency response of both city employees and the public in the aftermath of the tornado that struck just over a week before the meeting. Miraculously, there were only 22 injuries and no deaths due to the storm.

“The citizens of Jonesboro have been strong and come to each other’s rescue. We are a loving people.”

Jonesboro Mayor Harold Perrin

Perhaps the most impactful topic of the night dealt with the mayor’s power to enact a city-wide curfew in times of declared state emergencies. Previously, a curfew could only be enacted for 48 before the city council had to meet to approve any extension.

However, the members voted unanimously to overturn that precedent, allowing the mayor to enact a curfew for up to 120 days — or until the next scheduled meeting — the maximum number of days allowed under state law.

As a direct result of the motion passing, Perrin will meet with city officials including Chief of Police Rick Elliot and Jonesboro Chief of Staff Mike Downing on Wednesday to iron out the details of a forthcoming curfew. Perrin said a curfew is “coming soon,” and that citizens should be prepared to follow it during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I want everyone to wear a mask. Protect yourselves and your loved ones. This is no time to worry about appearances. You look better with a mask. Please help your city by being responsible,” Perrin said.

Ironically, the first order of business was to pass a motion allowing the online meeting to happen, overturning an in-person requirement in times of a state emergency. Of course, the motion passed unanimously.

Several other issues brought up were related to re-zoning, but most were postponed to be discussed at a later date. Councilman David McClain insisted suspending a vote on ORD-20:010 until citizens could participate in person to discuss the details.

Unlike typical meetings, resident interactions were very few throughout the evening. There was one call-in and only a handful of emails and Facebook comments.

The viewer count peaked around 100, but dipped as low as 50 viewers toward the end of the meeting, likely much lower than in-person attendance would have been under normal circumstances.

A decent number of comments related to how well the city has handled not one, but two emergency situations in the past month.

“I appreciate that the city is continuing to operate in this fashion. Different and dark times require creative solutions,” Jonesboro resident Scott McDaniel commented on the live stream. “Keep it up.”

Watch the full meeting here.