Zooming video

Courtesy photo

Wharton City Manager Andres Garza reads from instructions on how the Wharton City Council members should conduct themselves during a Zoom meeting, in accordance with the Texas Open Meetings Act.

Wharton City Council meetings will be discontinued on Zoom so social distancing and mask wearing will once again be practiced beginning with a Monday, Aug. 10 regular meeting.

During two meetings in July, the Wharton City Council had been having meetings via Zoom.

It presented one major issue for councilmembers about whether to agree to discuss the city manager’s evaluation.

It doesn’t appear that City Manager Andres Garza, Jr.’s job is on the line. The long-time city official has worked in Wharton for more than 30 years in this capacity. In that time, he was the focal point of discussion when elected officials met to evaluate his performance. 

It’s routine in every municipality, even when a city manager is performing his/her duties to the council’s approval.

In fact, in a meeting agenda, it will literally read “city manager evaluation,” and council routinely meets in executive session to talk about this. That means elected officials will go behind closed doors and talk.  

But, based on how they voted in their last meeting, it does appear that councilmembers disagreed about having a city manager evaluation on July 27. Once City Secretary Paula Favors announced the last item on the agenda, Councilman Russell Machann immediately wanted to hold off on it.

“I want to make the motion that we table this, until we can all get together at one table,” Machann said.

Wharton had stopped having council meetings because of the pandemic. At the time of the July 27 meeting, there was not a timeline of when the council would meet in person inside Wharton City Hall.

Utilizing Zoom has also been ineffective at times, because councilmembers can’t see anyone, and when they sometimes speak there is a delay of a few seconds. It’s happened numerous times during the meeting when councilmembers spoke to city staff, and it happened again after Machann made the motion.

Councilmember Mueller, who presided over the meeting, quickly asked for a vote after a council person could barely be heard seconding the motion. However, councilmembers Alice Heard-Roberts and Clifford Jackson asked Machann to expand on his reason why.

“You mean in person,” Jackson asked.

Machann replied: “I’d like that meeting to be together when we’re looking at each other.” 

“What difference does it make; we are all here tonight,” Heard-Roberts also asked, while laughing.

The discussion was tabled for another day by a 4-2 vote. It was the 21st and last item on the meeting agenda, which ended at 8:10 p.m.

According to the Aug. 10 meeting agenda, the city manager evaluation is not listed.

City Secretary said Wharton councilmembers would be meeting once again in person, beginning with the Aug. 10 meeting.

She also told the Journal-Spectator that the city manager’s evaluation is tentatively set for the Aug. 24 city council meeting.

Remote meeting explained

Before these July meetings began remotely, Garza had detailed how and why these meetings were being held.

Reading from a prepared statement during the meeting, he said: “in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by avoiding meetings that bring people into a group setting, and in accordance with the Texas Governor’s Declaration of Disaster enacted March 13, 2020 and subsequently renewed monthly, the City of Wharton city council was participating remotely in compliance with the Texas Open Meetings Act, as temporarily modified by Governor Abbott.”

He had also given the following statement:

“Members of the public may participate by joining via Zoom, at the link provided on the agenda posted at the City of Wharton website and instructions including how to access the meeting, using Zoom or telephonically, were posted on the City of Wharton’s website at www.cityofwharton.com.”

When a person logged on to listen or view a Wharton meeting, they were told all elected officials had to remember that it was a requirement of the Texas Open Meetings Act that to lawfully participate in a teleconference, their camera had to be engaged at all times, even if a councilperson stepped away from his/her computer.

“The city council should refrain from using the chat function, unless they are experiencing technical difficulties and it was necessary to send a message to the city staff, or if they need to indicate that they would like to make a comment or ask a question, and cannot otherwise signify their intent to the mayor,” Garza said. “Any chat messages sent would be recorded.”

He said all votes taken during a meeting would be done by a show of hands, with a roll call vote taken, if necessary. Had the meeting been interrupted due to technical difficulties, it would have restarted as soon as technical difficulties were resolved.

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