DeSantis wants ‘normal’ government meetings. This village is meeting at a dog park

Aaron Leibowitz

As temperatures dipped into the low 50s Tuesday evening — a frigid night by Florida standards — officials in North Bay Village gathered under a small open tent on a waterfront grassy knoll behind a local dog park for a meeting.

One commissioner wore a winter hat. Another draped a blanket over her body. A handful of residents stood or sat on lawn chairs outside the tent, gravitating toward heat lamps for warmth. Hot chocolate and cookies were available at a table nearby.

About 100 feet away, a man played with his dog. Also nearby were the waters of Biscayne Bay, a Shell gas station, and the JFK Causeway that connects North Bay Village’s three small islands. At around midnight, nearly six hours into the meeting, the village’s human resources director showed up with chicken soup for commissioners and staff.

“That was the best chicken soup I’ve had in a while,” Mayor Brent Latham said.

Mayor Brent Latham, far right, presides over a North Bay Village commission meeting held outside in a local dog park for COVID safety reasons on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020.
Mayor Brent Latham, far right, presides over a North Bay Village commission meeting held outside in a local dog park for COVID safety reasons on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020.

The strange scene reflected one local effort to protect against the spread of COVID-19, at a time when the tools to do so in Florida are severely limited. North Bay Village has now held two meetings next to the dog park at 7903 East Drive, the first on Nov. 23, in order to comply with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ demand that local governments return to in-person meetings.

The governor allowed his March emergency order that had authorized virtual meetings to expire Nov. 1.

DeSantis has limited local governments’ ability to enforce various COVID-related safety measures in recent months, even as COVID cases in Florida have surged for a third time this year. Lobbyist Ron Book told North Bay Village commissioners Tuesday that, when he spoke to officials in the governor’s office about why virtual meetings are no longer allowed, they cited DeSantis’ desire for a return to normal life.

The results of that desire have been anything but normal.

Some cities, including five in Miami-Dade County, have continued meeting virtually, arguing that they have the legal authority to do so by passing their own emergency orders.

Many more have gone to great lengths to ensure they have an in-person quorum. In some cities, a quorum of commissioners appears in person while staff and members of the public participate virtually. Some have installed glass barriers to protect commissioners and have limited the number of residents allowed in the chambers at once.

In North Bay Village, officials felt that meeting in small commission chambers wouldn’t be safe. Only about 20 people can fit inside with proper social distancing. And with five commissioners, several staff members and more residents inside for hours at a time, it could have been “a recipe for the transmission of COVID,” Latham said.

“The logic of doing that doesn’t register,” he said.

Latham said the move to outdoor meetings has been successful — people feel safe, residents have the choice to participate either in person or remotely, and some enjoy being outdoors as the weather cools down. Before Tuesday’s meeting, the village held a brief Christmas tree-lighting ceremony next to the tent.

The North Bay Village commission meeting was held in a tent in a local dog park on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020, for COVID-19 safety reasons. Before the meeting, the village held a brief Christmas tree-lighting ceremony nearby.
The North Bay Village commission meeting was held in a tent in a local dog park on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020, for COVID-19 safety reasons. Before the meeting, the village held a brief Christmas tree-lighting ceremony nearby.

But the transition has taken significant time and resources, Latham said. The village expects to be reimbursed for those costs by the county through CARES Act dollars, but the mayor noted that the time spent setting up heat lamps could have been spent on other things.

“In a relatively small city like ours, for them [public works employees] to set this up, it does take a good amount of time. It’s a major undertaking,” Latham said. “That’s something for policymakers at the state level to take into account.”

The North Bay Village Commission will meet again behind the dog park Jan. 12. Latham said he has told the village manager the arrangement can extend through the spring if necessary.

“I think we just kind of roll with the punches in the political environment in 2020,” he said.