Town goes virtual

Mayor Pete Muldoon is seen on a television screen speaking during a special Town Council meeting March 17 from the lobby of Town Hall. The town has moved its meeting to a virtual format that will give the public a chance to comment in real time, online.

The coronavirus momentarily swept aside all other considerations for government officials, but now that they’ve had time to adjust they’ve resumed their usual affairs.

As Jackson Town Councilor Jim Stanford put it, “We have to continue to do the public’s business.”

In this new socially distanced landscape that requires novel solutions. Namely, the town has adapted to perform some tasks in the virtual realm.

“This is a really critical time of need for technological tools,” said Michael “Zolo” Palazzolo, the town’s information technology director. “So far we’re really pleased with how things are going.”

The most significant change is the town’s use of WebEx, a video conferencing platform that allows viewers to participate in town meetings in a way that traditionally was possible only by attending in person.

As officials encourage people to watch meetings online they wanted to ensure the public could still make its voice heard. During council meetings from one to dozens of people comment.

Of course they can still email elected officials with their thoughts before meetings. But now, through WebEx, viewers can use the “hand raise” feature to be recognized during a meeting and orally express their opinions in real time.

Palazzolo purchased subscriptions to WebEx for the town and the Teton County Sheriff’s Office and the general Teton County government. He said the Teton County School District has also shown interest in using it.

“As soon as we saw social distancing coming into the foray,” he said, “I thought, ‘We need to get ready for this. This is going to change everything.’”

The technology has become available at a time of intense public engagement for the town of Jackson. In the Town Council’s first meetings on how to manage the coronavirus outbreak, Palazzolo said, viewership was between 600 and 800, including those who watched the archived videos. The council is also receiving far more comments than usual on coronavirus-related issues.

In the council’s first meeting with WebEx access, on Monday, Palazzolo said about 10 people used it, though none commented. Three of the councilors tuned in remotely using WebEx, and the two present at Town Hall sat at opposite ends of the table. The audience was just a few town employees.

“We’re trying to practice what we preach here,” Mayor Pete Muldoon said.

In another tech-based solution to the social distancing problem, the town Planning and Building Department has begun to inspect buildings remotely, via FaceTime or WebEx. Community Development Director Tyler Sinclair called it “one of the more innovative things we’ve done.”

Most government business can be handled over the phone or email, while town offices remain closed to the public during the pandemic. For detailed information on how to contact various departments, visit JacksonWY.gov.

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Contact Cody Cottier at 732-5911 or town@jhnewsandguide.com.

Cody Cottier covers town and state government. He grew up with a view of the Olympic Mountains, and after graduating Washington State University he traded it for a view of the Tetons. Odds are the mountains are where you’ll find him when not on deadline.

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