St Elizabeth's councillors weigh meeting options in COVID-19 eraSunday, April 25, 2021
BY GARFIELD MYERS
BLACK RIVER, St Elizabeth — Back in 2015, when a spanking new meeting room with related facilities was opened with much fanfare, its relatively confined size and space seemed only a minor issue for political representatives and staff at the St Elizabeth Municipal Corporation.
Now, everything has changed with the coming of COVID-19. That's because of the need for plenty of space between individuals to minimise the risk of virus spread.
At the most recent monthly meeting on April 8, St Elizabeth councillors, municipal staff, representatives of public sector agencies and journalists spurred by fears of the novel coronavirus moved to the huge, airy Black River Independence Baptist Church at New Town, just outside the centre of this town.
“COVID is all over the place so we just taking extra precaution…,” Errol Lebert, CEO of the municipal corporation, explained at the time.
The aim of social/physical distancing with people seated six feet apart and more was easily achieved.
But acoustics turned out to be poor in the high-ceilinged hall with reverberation a problem for all concerned.
“We struggled to hear each other at times,” Councillor Donald Simpson (Malvern Division – Jamaica Labour Party), who had deputised for an absent chairman of the council, and Mayor of Black River Derrick Sangster, later observed.
And journalists found recorded material from the council meeting next to useless.
“I couldn't do anything with what I got (audio) in the meeting…” said veteran broadcast journalist Melville Harris.
Sangster told the Jamaica Observer last week that there was also concern about security with just about anyone having easy access as well as Wi-fi limitations.
In any case, as pointed out by Sangster, who represents the Mountainside Division for the JLP, moving into the church at New Town was only meant to be a temporary measure.
“We are grateful to the church for accommodating us but we have to find a way to return to our own facilities,” Sangster said last week.
Among the proposals for ensuring the meeting room at the municipal corporation is made “safe”, in terms of the novel coronavirus, is the setting up of partitions between coucillors and others attending meetings of the full council as well as committees.
According to Sangster, such an arrangement, “should it be found to be feasible”, would be similar to what now exists at Gordon House on Duke Street in Kingston, seat of the Jamaican Parliament.
Late last year, Gordon House was renovated in order to meet COVID-19-related health and safety protocols with changes including the installation of plexi-glass partitions. Some parliamentary sittings and committee meetings were even moved to the Jamaica Conference Centre close to the waterfront in downtown Kingston while renovations — made more urgent by the increase in numbers on the Government side following last September's parliamentary election — were done.
Sangster told the Sunday Observer that “expert assessors” were expected to visit the municipal corporation over the next few days to assess the feasibility of partitions. A cost estimate would also be crucial, Sangster said.
“We are hoping we will have a situation where we can meet here at our next monthly council meeting (set for May 13),” Sangster said.
Municipal corporation sources told the Sunday Observer that while online meetings are much in vogue nowadays, councillors considered that option impractical and unreliable given the need for robust discussion and debate.
In 2015 when the municipal corporation meeting room — adjacent to a more than 100-year-old wooden structure which had previously accommodated meetings — was finally opened after several years of stop/start construction, it was hailed as a classic example of bipartisan teamwork.
Started in 2011 at the initiative of the JLP's Jeremy Palmer (Pedro Plains Division) then mayor of Black River and chairman of the parish council, it was completed by his successor as Black River mayor and council chairman the People's National Party's Everton Fisher (Balaclava Division).
The one-storey building cost close to $30 million and in addition to the council room, it has a lobby area, kitchen and bathrooms. The building was named in honour of Palmer and Fisher.
At the time a second floor — with no timelines set – was planned to include facilities for councillors to work as well as meet constituents; a mayor's parlour; and additional bathroom sfacilities.
The old vacated building, which like many others in historic Black River, is a National Heritage site, initially contemplated as ideal for a museum. But Sangster said last week that plans had been shelved at least for the time being.
“Councillors need a common room,” said Sangster, “but for right now the primary objective must be to have it refurbished rather than falling down.”