Forest Park teleconference shows the drawbacks of virtual governing

Forest Park Mayor Angelyne Butler stands by her decision to enact a curfew and close non-essential businesses during the coronavirus pandemic. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Forest Park Mayor Angelyne Butler stands by her decision to enact a curfew and close non-essential businesses during the coronavirus pandemic. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

An attempt Monday by the Forest Park City Council to consider modifying a shelter-in-place ordinance ended in confusion when residents attempted to have their say, demonstrating the strains of trying to govern by teleconference.

After city leaders expressed their opinions about a curfew and a state of emergency the Clayton County municipality had enacted five days earlier, citizens unmuted their phones to express reservations about the council’s actions.

“Are the residents of Forest Park allowed to ask questions,” one resident chimed in. Mayor Angelyne Butler responded: “No.”

“I think there are a lot of unanswered questions,” another resident on the call said, which caused one other to agree, “The website is unclear with instructions,” she said.

A third, perhaps unaware that he was live on the call, said, “I was going to make some recommendations, but I can’t even get through.”

Forest Park is the latest example of municipalities facing stiff challenges when holding virtual meetings because of the spread of coronavirus.

Glitches abound, including lost audio, frozen pictures and poor lighting that make reading ordinances shown on screen impossible.

Forest Park’s problems started almost immediately. Person after person announced their names as they joined the call, often running over one another.

And as the call proceeded, constant chimes notified those on the call that another person had joined.

Councilwoman Kimberly James said she thought it was important to have the meeting because of her concerns that the language in the curfew and the closure of businesses were too broad and unenforceable. She worried that public safety officials, who need to protect citizens, would be spending their time giving $1,000 tickets to those who don't shelter in place.

“I think that we need to not have an unnecessary burden on our first responders, and that they can be used for other things than: ‘I see somebody out on the street and they should be in the house,’” she said.

But Mayor Butler said the move was necessary because President Trump and Gov. Brian Kemp put the decision in the hands of local leadership.

“Just because others refuse to act, doesn’t mean that we won’t,” Butler said. “I was elected to lead, we were all elected to lead. And where I come from, leading does not mean always waiting on others.”