Goodbye, Zoom calls: Walton County halts remote access to public meetings

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — With growing public perception that coronavirus pandemic appears to be winding down, Walton County has discontinued its use of the Zoom online and phone teleconferencing tool to allow remote public participation in county government meetings.

The decision to discontinue Zoom access to meetings came in conjunction with the expiration late last month of a state emergency declaration connected with the COVID-19 pandemic. But according to Commissioner Danny Glidewell, there is some indication that a resident has placed the issue of continuing Zoom access on the agenda for the commission's July 13 meeting.

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With the coronavirus pandemic apparently waning, the Walton County government has opted to discontinue offering remote participation in an array of county government meetings via the Zoom teleconferencing tool.

Meetings set for the next few weeks that already have been advertised as having Zoom access will offer the teleconferencing option, but after that, remote access to meetings no longer will be available.

According to Louis Svehla, the county's public information manager, the decision to halt the use of Zoom was made jointly by the county government administration and Walton County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Trey Nick.

A Tuesday telephone call, text message and email to Nick from the Daily News had not been returned as of Wednesday. Similarly, a Tuesday call to the county administration office asking to speak with someone about the decision was left on hold for several minutes and never picked up.

Non-interactive broadcasts remain  

As it has since 2012, the county will continue to broadcast its array of meetings — from County commission sessions to Tourist Development Council meetings to meetings of the county Planning Commission and other planning bodies — via its website and also online via YouTube.

But those broadcasts do not offer the interactive capability of Zoom, meaning that people who want to participate in public meetings must now attend them in person to offer comment. 

The county's move to discontinue its use of Zoom has created something of a backlash among some members of the public, who during the past year have come to rely on the teleconferencing tool to participate in public meetings without having to travel long distances, often on crowded tourist-season roads, to be heard.

As an example, when commission meetings are held at the courthouse in DeFuniak Springs, people in Santa Rosa Beach and other communities in the south end of the county can face drives of 30 miles or more each way, often along U.S. Highways 98 and 331, two popular routes used extensively by visitors to the county.

Commissioners themselves have made occasional use of Zoom to attend meetings remotely, although in recent months they have routinely attended meetings in person. That's been less the case for other government bodies, where even in recent weeks, significant numbers of those members have continued to attend sessions via Zoom.     

The move to offer public participation in county meetings via Zoom came in April 2020, as social distancing protocols and other coronavirus-related restrictions made it problematic to host crowds in available public meeting spaces.

Svehla said the county used part of its share of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) funding to purchase the Zoom equipment, eventually installing it in each space used to host county meetings, including the commission chambers in the courthouse in DeFuniak Springs, a county boardroom in Freeport and a courthouse annex in Santa Rosa Beach.

That equipment will remain in place, Svehla said, although it is not clear how or if it might be used again. One possibility is that the equipment could be used to link the public and the county government during hurricanes or other emergencies.

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'Just whatever's on social media'

Svehla said his office hasn't directly received a lot of complaints about the move away from Zoom.

"Just whatever's on social media," he said.

One of those social media channels, a Facebook page titled Walton County Ideas for Visioning and Quality of Life, has included significant criticism of ending Zoom.

"It was too convenient for citizens to participate in their local government. County had to put an end to it," wrote Celeste Cobena of the local conservation organizations Beach to Bay Connection Association and Let It Be Forest.

Cobena, who frequently attends county meetings both in person and by Zoom, said she became concerned about remote attendance when she went to the county's website recently and could not find a Zoom link for an upcoming meeting. She said she contacted Svehla, who emailed her with the explanation of the decision to halt Zoom.

"I think it is something that needs to be addressed," Cobena said, adding that she has been in touch with Glidewell about the issue. 

"It's the wave of the future, and I think they need to continue the Zoom meetings," said Cobena, who added that the county should "continue to upgrade" its Zoom-enabling equipment.

'A lot of public participation'

"It really makes it easy for people to participate," Cobena added, noting that Zoom makes it possible for people with interests in Walton County, such as part-time residents and property owners who live elsewhere, to participate in decisions that could affect them.

Cobena also observed that "traffic is a big problem in Walton County, and everybody knows it." In addition to traffic, she said parking can be a problem at meeting sites. "I've been at some meetings where there was no parking," she said.

Glidewell said Wednesday that even though the full commission had not voted on the discontinuance of Zoom access, Nick had the authority to act to end that access. Glidewell added that current county policy outside of the coronavirus emergency does not allow for remote participation in government meetings.

Zoom access to meetings "was useful during the COVID time," Glidewell said, but he added that the county has not yet had an opportunity to evaluate its use outside of that circumstance.

And even without Zoom access, Glidewell added, "We've always had a lot of citizen participation in our meetings."

Continuing Zoom access would require the commission to change its policies on county government meetings, said Glidewell, who added, "I don't know what we'll do in the future."

The coming change is of particular concern to the South Walton Community Council (SWCC), a nonprofit organization that addresses quality of life and environmental issues.  

Speaking Wednesday on behalf of the SWCC board, board member Barbara Morano, a frequent presence at county meetings in person and via Zoom, said the group is "concerned and alarmed to find out that all Zoom meetings will be discontinued in August."

Morano said the SWCC board also is concerned about "the power of the (county) administration and the (County Commission) chair to make this change without the board of commissioners giving their input."

Morano added that "the COVID crisis has changed the way the world communicates. Participation in meetings by our citizens in Walton County has increased, and that needs to continue."