As life gets back toward normal with restaurants and many other businesses more fully opening, Colorado Springs City Council meetings are expected to stay closed to the general public through August because of the coronavirus.
Springs Taxpayers, a group that advocates for government transparency, sees no acceptable reason for the continued closure as vaccinations become more widespread and larger gatherings are allowed in many other places, group co-founder Laura Carno said.
"Why aren’t they willing to face the people whom they represent? I mean all of them, not just the developers," she said.
Resident Angela Gilpin, who watches nearly every meeting remotely, is among those who would prefer to see the meetings open for residents to make their case in person, particularly on contentious issues.
"There is a difference between pleading your case in public versus a disembodied voice on the phone," she said.
When residents call into a meeting to comment, their passion may not be fully communicated, Gilpin said.
City council meetings have been largely closed to the public since early in the pandemic, although representatives of development proposals often attend in person.
Representatives of neighborhoods and other advocacy groups have also been allowed to attend to speak on particular topics. In one meeting, for example, a representative of the Mountain Shadows neighborhood was allowed to present in person at the planning commission meeting on a controversial proposal to build apartments at 2424 Garden of the Gods Road. Hundreds of other residents in opposition called in to speak on the issue.
In contrast to the city's virtual approach, El Paso County commission meetings were mostly open to the public last year and through this year.
City Council President Tom Strand said closing meetings to the general public is a safety measure because hospitalizations are on the rise and a new highly contagious strain of COVID-19 from Brazil was detected in the county.
"I want to get to full public meetings as soon as it’s a safe and best option to do," he said.
In April, the city had more audio problems during their remote broadcasts than normal because the council moved their meetings to Plaza of the Rockies while city hall chambers are getting renovated, he said. He expects those problems will be fixed in May ahead of a meeting on the 2424 Garden of the Gods Road apartment proposal. At the last meeting about the apartments, more than 250 people called and crashed the city's system for managing callers.
Carno said only allowing a few people to represent the opinions of many neighbors limits the impact residents can have when they show up in force.
"If 250 people showed up to city hall that would be quite the spectacle, it would be sending a statement," she said.
Mindy Gasparek, who has been advocating for city pet store reforms, said the coronavirus raised her awareness about the option to watch meetings remotely and that's been convenient for her.
While it would be nice for the general public to be allowed back into city hall, she said, she would rather the city be safe.
"I think the main priority is COVID and doing what’s best and safest for everybody," Gasparek said.
Strand said he is unaware of any new local measures to limit public gatherings within the county more generally.