Public meetings without the public?

Public meetings without the public? Here’s how Orange, Seminole and Lake governments are still holding meetings

Public participation is an essential ingredient to local government. The law requires it.

Certain city and county business can’t move forward without noticed public hearings. And typically, there’s time at every meeting devoted to residents who want to stand up in crowded commission chambers and tell their elected officials whatever is on their minds.

Now Orange, Seminole and Lake counties along with cities like Winter Park are trying to find a delicate balance that allows them to conduct essential business — still with public input — while also following public health guidelines to avoid crowds larger than 10 people during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

In an extraordinary move, the public was not allowed inside Seminole County’s commission chambers for Tuesday’s meeting in Sanford. Instead, residents who showed up in person were directed to watch the proceedings on screens in the building’s lobby or separate rooms each limited to 10 people.

Residents who wanted to comment on an agenda item, were asked to fill out a card before the meeting, often part of the regular procedure at many local governments. But, this time, when it was a person’s turn to speak, a county staff member walked the person into the commission chamber to the podium, which already sits several feet away from the dais where elected officials sit.

“It’s just a very, very strange time,” commission Chairman Jay Zembower said. “I think in the abundance of caution, our staff is trying to accommodate us to conduct what county business is necessary. But at the same time allow the public a chance to comment on the issues on the agenda.”

In Orange County, where commissioners also held an abbreviated afternoon session Tuesday, three commissioners participated via Web X video conferencing while Mayor Jerry Demings and the other three commissioners were seated on the dais to abide by the recommended six-feet of social distancing.

The board’s monthly employee recognition program was dropped.

Attendees were asked to fill out a survey asking if they have had a fever, cough, flu symptoms or possible exposure to the coronavirus before they can enter the Orange County government building.

Hand sanitizing wipes are on the ready.

And seating inside the lobby, chambers and an adjoining room comply with social-distancing guidelines.

The board agenda was cut by postponing several items to a future date in an effort to avoid drawing a crowd. Among those axed from Tuesday’s agenda was a boat-ramp ordinance which would impose restrictions on air-boat-operators who run their private business from public ramps.

In Lake County, commissioners held their regular 9 a.m. meeting today via teleconferencing. All five commissioners called into the meeting remotely, and no one was inside the commission chambers, officials said.

The meeting was broadcast on the county’s website, and the public was encouraged to submit comments to

Municipalities like Winter Park and Maitland canceled their regular meetings this week over concerns of the virus.

In Winter Park, the city is hosting a public work session Thursday that will be broadcast through a webinar. The session is a trial run for use of the technology in future meetings and commissioners will discuss the city’s response to COVID-19.

In Seminole, Zembower was joined by commissioners Bob Dallari and Lee Constantine at the meeting, while Commissioner Brenda Carey took part via teleconferencing from a remote location.

Commissioner Amy Lockhart told county staff that she would not take part in a meeting in which residents would not be allowed to fully participate. She also was concerned about the health risks of conducting a meeting in person.

She said the county has the capability to conduct the meeting via teleconferencing with the public, along with county officials, able to participate.

“I am concerned that we are causing our citizens to make an untenable choice between two rights: The right to be heard, and the right to preserve their health and the health of others,” she said in an email to county Attorney Bryant Applegate and county Manager Nicole Guillet.

Guillet also attended the meeting.

The public was not allowed to comment about matters not on the agenda.

“In other words, we’re not talking about River Cross or the swapping of properties,” Zembower said Monday, referring to a highly controversial development proposal that would exchange county-owned preservation land for large acreage within the county’s rural boundary to settle a federal lawsuit.

That angered wildlife activist Katrina Shadix, who was hoping to speak against the proposed land swap involving the county’s Econ River Wilderness Area for the larger River Cross land.

Shadix, an Oviedo resident and a candidate for the commission’s district 1 seat, said county commissioners should instead postpone today’s meeting if the public is not allowed to attend in person or speak out about other items not on the agenda.

“We’re not being given our fair right to speak,” she said.

In anticipation of commissioners not allowing public comment on the proposed land swap, Shadix recorded 10 residents speaking out about preserving the Econ River Wilderness Area and plans to submit the videos to commissioners.

Seminole Deputy County Manager Tricia Johnson said the unusual procedures are necessary for public health reasons.

“We don’t want the public to feel that we were having a meeting, and that we wouldn’t allow them to comment,” Johnson said. “We want them to have the ability to do so, and to also feel safe.”

Staffer Lisa Maria Garza contributed to this report.;