Coronavirus forces city council to move meetings online

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This computer screen shot shows Oxford officials connected Thursday on Zoom for their first virtual council meeting. Top row, left to right:  Assistant City Manager Jessica Greene and Councilors Glen Ellerbe, William Snavely and Jason Bracken. Middle row, left to right: Mayor Mike Smith, City Manager Doug Elliott and Councilors Chantel Raghu and Edna Southard. Bottom row, left to right: Police Chief John Jones, Councilor David Prytherch, Law Director Chris Conard and Community Development Director Sam Perry. Photo by Halie Barger.

By Halie Barger

The coronavirus has made virtual meetings the reality of many businesses, schools, and organizations all over the world. On Thursday night, that reality reached Oxford City Council.

Council met via video chat using the video conferencing service, Zoom. The mayor, city manager, members of council, various administrators and members of the public all connected from their individual remote locations. The virtual meeting was live streamed on YouTube, and public participation was still accepted.

Last Friday, April 3, the city had sent out a message telling residents that this week’s meeting would be happening in person on its regular Tuesday meeting date. Council had planned to follow social distancing guidelines, with everyone sitting at least six feet apart. On Tuesday, however, the city sent out a new alert that the meeting was postponed until Thursday, and it would happen virtually. The meeting can be viewed here.

“We were not thinking enough about our own personal health and safety and setting a good example,”  Mayor Mike Smith said, explaining the change.

After some initial technical difficulties Thursday evening, the council worked through its regular agenda. A resolution urging the Area I court of Butler County to suspend or delay all evictions due to the economic hardships that COVID-19 may bring was passed unanimously.

“We’re not directly influencing or changing eviction policies, we’re just asking the courts to do so,” said Councilor David Prytherch.

Councilors Chantel Raghu, Jason Bracken and vice-mayor William Snavely had requested the resolution to be added to the agenda, after hearing that eviction papers had been filed in court against four people in Oxford. Those evictions have not been carried out.

Another resolution was passed allowing the city to amend the Oxford revolving loan fund rules and procedures. Smith said the amendment will loosen up the rules on the fund, which is used for the attraction, creation and retention of local businesses.

“This adjustment is for the retention of those local businesses in Oxford,” said Councilor Glen Ellerbe said in the meeting. “We really value our local businesses and we want to make sure they stay through these unprecedented times.”

An ordinance creating a small business stimulus program and declaring an emergency was also on the agenda. This stimulus program would inject money into the economy by donating $200,000 to the Oxford Community Improvement Corporation (CIC) Board to buy gift cards from local businesses. People will be able to buy those gift cards from the non-profit CIC and use them after Aug. 1. The Aug. 1 date will allow the businesses time to take advantage of the money they receive from the gift card purchases until Miami University students return to campus, said Assistant City Manager Jessica Greene.

“The eligibility would be brick and mortar businesses located within the city limits in the city of  Oxford, Ohio,” Greene said.

Businesses would have to apply online to be evaluated for their eligibility in the program. Greene said one of the biggest challenges will be deciding how to re-sell the gift cards.

“I think this is really an ingenious idea,” Prytherch said. This stimulus program was modeled after one being used in Hamilton, Ohio.

“I really appreciate how our local businesses have tried to stay open and tried to employ people,” Prytherch said.

While operational details that need to be worked out, council voted unanimously to approve the plan. Council also urged residents to donate to the Oxford Community Foundation as an avenue to support local charities.

At the meeting’s conclusion all of the council and staff thanked the city staff for their work during this time. Many city employees, including most of those in the fire, police and service departments, are essential employees and remain on the job, while other, less critical workers are doing their jobs from home. City buildings have been closed to the public for the duration of the coronavirus crisis.

“I just want to shout out to my staff,” said City Manager Doug Elliott. “They are doing an excellent job.”

Elliott said that city staff are continuing to provide essential services while also adapting to state regulations as they come.