Weeks before gatherings, including public meetings, were shut down to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Maui County council members and their staffs were already working to move business online.

Now, as some boards and commissions consider how to meet under new rules for Hawaii’s sunshine law, the nine-member council seems to have found a way to allow work to get done, the public to participate and all of them to keep a safe distance from each other.

And on schedule, too. The council is still on track to pass the county’s more than $800 million operating budget, according to council Vice Chair Keani Rawlins-Fernandez.

“Everybody’s collaborating and everybody’s pitching in,” Council Chair Alice Lee said. “But, we do look forward to the day we can actually see each other in person again.”

The Maui County Council meets remotely, but still allows public participation. Screenshot/2020

The council has been using a videoconferencing program called BlueJeans, which Maui County has used since at least 2013. The software costs the county about $34,000 annually, according to county spokesman Brian Perry.

With BlueJeans, council meetings run almost normally. Committees hear public testimony, get presentations from the administration and move legislation.

But it might not be running so smoothly if the council hadn’t acted quickly.

Early on, Rawlins-Fernandes took the lead in working out the kinks for the switch to online meetings.

Work began March 10, she said, with a target date to move to virtual meetings sometime around March 22. Gov. David Ige had yet to order residents to stay home or suspended Hawaii’s open meeting laws when the council started planning to use BlueJeans.

Rawlins-Fernandez, chair of the Economic Development and Budget Committee, already knew the council would be on a tight deadline. It gets proposed budgets in late March and has until June 10 to deliberate and approve them.

That typically includes hearings in each of Maui County’s nine districts plus committee meetings and at least two rounds of votes by the full council. And the budget process was not expected to be easy this year. Even before the pandemic, the administration sent over a budget that included millions in cuts. 

Maui County Council Vice Chair Keani Rawlins-Fernandez and her staff spent two weeks in March troubleshooting the meetings program. Mickey Pauole

“The council put their faith in me that we would have a process that would continue to be fair and allow the council and the public to participate,” Rawlins-Fernandez said.

For those two weeks, Rawlins-Fernandez said she and her staff ran through different scenarios of how meetings could go wrong to try and troubleshoot problems before they came up.

Council members and their staffs also had practice runs on BlueJeans to get everyone accustomed to the new software and ask the council’s tech staff for help. 

The timing worked out perfectly. On March 23, Maui County closed its offices to the public.

Without BlueJeans, Rawlins-Fernandez said the council would likely have had to restrict public testimony during budget hearings. Worse, the budget chair says she doesn’t think the council would have even made it through the budget process if it hadn’t started working on its meeting format early.

The Maui County Council is currently the only one to allow live testimony via video, although Honolulu has announced that it will begin allowing testimony via video on Wednesday.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the Honolulu City Council only accepted written testimony but in fact it has continued to allow people to testify in person during the pandemic provided they practice good social distancing.

The Maui meetings are not without their hiccups. Audio has cut out several times, Rawlins-Fernandez said. Feedback noise is also an issue if members of the public call in to the meetings on both their phones and laptops. 

But public reception has generally been positive.

Rob Weltman, president of the Sierra Club Maui Group, said he and others were glad the council kept meetings open while other agencies were shutting out the public.

Weltman, who recently testified at a council meeting on a plastics ban, said he found BlueJeans easy to use, and hopes the council keeps using it even when in-person meetings start again to give people more options to participate.

Rob Weltman, president of the Sierra Club Maui Group, is pleased with the format the council uses for public testimony. Screenshot/2020

“I think it’s better sometimes because not everyone can travel or take the time off,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s important for the council to see how many people really care about a particular issue. In that case, it’s important for them to see the audience.”

Councilwoman Kelly King said she hopes the Legislature, which is scheduled to reconvene on Monday, takes notice and figures out a way to allow remote participation for neighbor island residents.

Rawlins-Fernandez said some committee meetings should stay online to save money on travel costs for councilmembers on Lanai and Molokai, who need to commute to Wailuku for meetings.

Lee, the council chair, said it’s not clear if the council can continue meeting like this and accepting testimony on BlueJeans once the sunshine law is unsuspended.

“But it’s not impossible,” she said. “We’ll figure it out. We’re ready for anything.”

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