Covid-19 Pushes County & City Boards into New, Safer Facilities

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

If you’ve been watching Clay County Commission meetings online, you’ve noticed a change of scenery in recent weeks, as the five-member board has begun meeting in a newly remodeled room in the courthouse. The larger meeting space, with upgraded video and other amenities, is across the hall from the traditional chamber, which dates back to the courthouse’s construction in 1954.

You’ll see a similar shift during the next Moorhead City Council meeting on Jan. 25. The city, too, has remodeled and upgraded new quarters to host biweekly meetings of its eight members and key staff. They’ll move to a large ground-floor room in the Hjemkomst Center in what’s known as the building’s theater addition.

Both moves, say county administrator Steve Larson and city manager Dan Mahli, reflect the need to accommodate elected officials, staff and citizens in spaces that allow observance of social distancing guidelines spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.

Larson notes that the commission’s move is part of a larger shift and relocation of offices that have been housed in the increasingly cramped courthouse. Many offices are slated to move into the new county office building at 3510 12th Ave. S., purchased late last year from RDO Equipment. “The building was in excellent shape, but some fit-up still needed to be done, including creating a couple of lobbies,” he says. The commission approved that remodeling last month. He predicts that the new quarters will be ready by March 1 for occupancy by the human resources, auditor, treasurer, planning and zoning, assessor, recorder and administrative departments.

Meanwhile, the commission will continue to meet in its new space at the courthouse. Several county attorneys, information technology and solid waste office will stay there, too. The space freed up by others agencies’ moves free up more space for District Court, which has asked to accommodate the new judicial referee for the Minnesota Supreme Court and spread out other now-cramped court offices.

The new lay County Multipurpose Community Meeting Space – its new name – is far larger than the old commission chambers. The table at which the five commissioners are seated every Tuesday is also large enough to handle the monthly meetings of the 11-member Planning and Zoning Commission.

The need for room to stretch out became obvious when Covid-19 guidelines came into play. While some commissioners participate virtually through an internet video system, others – always masked – still mostly attend in person. County staff who once could join the conversation at the table, including Larson, were pushed to the sides. “Pre-Covid, the county attorney, the administrative assistant and I sat in the board area,” he points out.

Moorhead city government has had to deal with the same space issues plus another, more critical roadblock. The council meets one floor up in City Hall (inexplicably called the “first floor”), requiring the use of two smallish elevators or a narrow stairway. The same elevators are used for all up-and-down travel in the four-story building. That means that employees and visitors have no way to maintain the two-person limit in each elevator car – an insoluble problem that led to thinking outside the box.

Like the county, the city used CARES Act funding to underwrite the cost of a solution. Rather than remaining in the Center Mall – a matter greatly complicated by the web of private ownership in the mall area – city staff began work late last fall on a much larger space at the Hjemkomst. The easily accessible main-floor area overlooking Viking Ship Park has long been used for receptions and other larger gatherings. It can be expanded even farther with the removal of partitions that separate the adjacent Oak and Pine Rooms, now used as the city’s Senior Center.

Since Covid-19 precautions mandated virtual meetings, the council chambers have been nearly empty, occupied only by Mayor Johnathan Judd, City Clerk Christina Rust and Manager Mahli. Council members have participated from their homes via WebEx online video. When Mahli announced the new meeting room’s completion at Monday’s council meeting, he asked members to say whether they’d prefer to attend future meetings face to face in the safer site or continue meeting virtually. Despite the far more adequate space and its accessibility, most indicated they would continue participating via video.

Mahli says video and audio connections are being upgraded by the city’s new IT director, Corey DeLorme. “This space going to be a great resource for all kinds of community groups,” he predicts. “We didn’t do this just for the council. It opens up all kinds of new opportunities for the community.”

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