DOVER — It had been 489 days since Dover City Council last met in a live session inside of council chambers at City Hall.
That all changed at 7:30 on Monday night when Elder Ellis Louden gave the invocation and City Councilman Ralph Taylor led those gathered inside council chambers in the Pledge of Allegiance before council got down to conducting city business in front of a live-but-limited audience for the first time in almost a year-and-a-half.
“I am ecstatic to be back in the chambers,” Dover City Council President Roy Sudler said. “Not only am I ecstatic to get back in the chambers for myself, but also for the constituents so they’ll be able to voice their concerns face-to-face without any technical difficulties.
“We did the best we could with the WebEx in trying to make sure that all of our constituents’ voices were heard; however, there’s nothing like face-to-face service and conversation.”
Before Monday night’s meeting, council members last met together live at a Council Committee of the Whole meeting on March 10, 2020 — just before the COVID-19 nightmare arrived.
City Council has met virtually since April 13, 2020, going through growing pains in adapting to the new teleconference environment, including forgetting to unmute the microphones on their computers before speaking and sometimes speaking over one another.
Allowing the public to actively participate in the meetings was another challenging matter. The pre-meeting 15-minute Open Forum returned to the live Dover City Council meeting on Monday night.
Steven Hall signed up to speak during the Open Forum and was glad to get the opportunity.
“It does (help) and I’m glad,” Mr. Hall said, of having the meetings live. “I have been patiently waiting for this for a very long time.
“If the public would actually join forces together it is vitally important that we come and utilize these meetings. That’s what they’re here for and I think it’s essential that we come and voice our opinion on whatever the topic is that we need to address.”
Even though the crowd remained limited due to continued social-distancing guidelines, Dover City Council took a giant step toward normalcy on Monday.
“I think it’s good to get back,” said City Councilman Fred Neil. “Now we’ll have a chance to have the (Public) Forum ahead of the meeting. This way if a person comes in and they’re speaking in the pre-meeting in the Open Forum and we find something of interest then we can write them back to make a presentation at the Council of the Whole meeting at a later time.”
City Councilman Matt Lindell said it is nice to get a chance to move away from the pandemic but added there were some advantages to having the meetings virtually.
“I think it’s nice to get back to some type of normalcy,” Councilman Lindell said. “One of the things that is more convenient with the Zoom-type of meetings is having all the information available at your disposal. I can search for things more quickly, but when you’re on the floor you can’t do it as efficiently or without looking like you’re not paying attention.
“I think it’s good for the public to see their elected officials back in action and to see them physically.”
Jonathan Street, an engineer for the Becker Morgan Group, often has to make presentations to city council regarding projects that his firm is working on. He said there is nothing like returning to council chambers.
“I think it’s pivotal for what we do to have the interaction face-to-face,” Mr. Street said. “It’s an extra piece of the whole puzzle. Being on screens, the city did an excellent job of adjusting to the technology for the past 18 months, but it still doesn’t compare with being in the chambers.
“You get to look them in the eye — good, bad or indifferent. You get to look council members in the eye, you get to look staff members in the eye, you can be here and interact and that’s what it’s all about.”
The return of live meetings of Dover City Council was a timely one, considering Gov. John Carney on Monday signed an order that lifted the COVID-19 State of Emergency effective at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday.
Gov. Carney first issued the State of Emergency on March 13, 2020, to control the spread of COVID-19 in Delaware communities.
“Delawareans pulled together over this past year and made real sacrifices to limit the spread of COVID-19, protect their neighbors, and save lives,” Gov. Carney said in a statement. “It wasn’t easy, and some sacrificed more than others. But I believe we’ll come out of this pandemic stronger for it.
“As we emerge from this crisis, let’s remember the 1,695 Delawareans we lost to COVID-19, and recommit to working together to build the future of our great state.”