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Council meeting's cancellation raises questions on bill payment, rescheduling

by Tia Lyons | January 14, 2022 at 12:00 a.m.
El Dorado City Hall is seen in this News-Times file photo.

Daily cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) with the latest variant -- omicron -- have been spiking over the past several weeks, prompting the cancellation and rescheduling of events in the community.

The issue reached the El Dorado City Council this week, forcing the council to cancel its first regular meeting of the year on Thursday.

In an email that was sent Wednesday morning, Council Member Mike Rice informed other city officials that due to having experienced some COVID symptoms, he was in quarantine and would not be able to attend a regularly-scheduled El Dorado Water and Public Works Board meeting at 10 a.m. that day.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Veronica Smith-Creer notified council members that she had heard from Rice and that he had tested positive for the virus.

She then asked council members if they had been tested for COVID, noting that several of them sat near Rice during a Finance Committee meeting that was held Monday,

In an email on Jan. 7, Smith-Creer asked council members if, in light of the latest round of COVID surges, they were considering alternatives, such as cancellations or virtual gatherings, for several city government meetings that were scheduled this week.

Council members convened for Finance Committee and El Dorado Water and Public Works meetings on Jan. 10 and 14, respectively, and some attended city commission and board meetings that were also held this week.

The mayor said she did not receive any responses to the email she sent last Friday.

Email exchanges went on between city officials for much of the day Thursday, during which they agreed to cancel the regular city council meeting that was to have been held at 5 p.m. yesterday.

Discussions were ongoing well into Thursday evening about when to reschedule and how to conduct the meeting and audience attendance.

City Clerk Heather McVay said she could set up a virtual meeting with accommodations that would allow the public to participate.

Council Member Willie McGhee suggested that the group reschedule the meeting for the same time next Thursday. Smith-Creer said that if the council opted for a face-to-face meeting, she would reconstitute COVID safety measures that were put into place in 2020 and part of 2021 for City Hall, including requirements for temperature checks upon entering the building, face masks and social distancing.

Council Member Paul Choate pointed out that "it was imperative" for the council to find a way to pay the city's bills -- a vote council members would have taken during the regular meeting.

He noted there have been several instances within the past two years in which the city has not paid its bills in a timely manner, due, in part, to issues with a high turnover of employees within the city's administration department.

Choate suggested Thursday that council members pay city invoices, totaling $327,118, via email. Council members have instituted the practice at points during the COVID pandemic.

Smith-Creer reminded council members that the Arkansas Municipal League advised against the matter, saying that such actions, "even a decision as small as paying a bill", must be taken during a public meeting.

"I understand what has been sent out (previously), but I do know that this opinion from the (Arkansas Attorney General) was done well prior to the advent of COVID-19," Choate wrote in response to Smith-Creer's email. "I would rather ask for forgiveness than cause any financial burden on the companies we owe money to."

By press time Thursday, Choate and four other council members -- Vance Williamson, Judy Ward, Billy Blann and Rice -- had expressed their support of paying the bills by email, with Williamson and Ward offering a second to Choate's motion to do so.

Ward's seconded the motion first and Blann and Rice voted in favor of paying the bills.

Print Headline: Council meeting's cancellation raises questions on bill payment, rescheduling

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