It was an unusual sight inside the City Chambers on Tuesday night.


A regularly-scheduled Ames City Council meeting, with council members speaking through a singular telecommunications speaker to empty rows of chairs as elected officials and city staff attempted to navigate city business in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.


“In these unusual times we have to decide how we’re gonna handle city council meetings and board and commission meetings,” said Ames City Manager Steve Schainker.


The City Council held its first electronic meeting, live-streamed via the city’s official YouTube page, and allowed residents to call in and submit questions to the council’s official email.


City Hall, like other buildings in the city, is officially closed to the public until May 15 due to the coronavirus.


However, Ames City Council meetings, as well as the city’s board and commission meetings will continue to be held, electronically through video communication platforms such as Zoom.


“On a pure conference call it’s very difficult to deliberate,” said Council member Amber Corrieri. “And if that can improve the video conference call then I think that we should try to continue to move forward.”


Zoom is a software program that allows users the ability to hold video conferences and online meetings remotely.


Last week, Gov. Kim Reynolds temporarily suspended regulatory provisions of Iowa Code imposing a requirement to hold a physical public meeting or hearing, allowing municipal governments to hold meetings through electronic means as long as they are accessible to the public.


For planning workshops such as the Ames 2040 Plan, the council discussed best practices on how to conduct forums with outside representatives such as RDG Planning and Design.


“I don’t see a good reason to cancel all of the workshops,” said council member Gloria Betcher. “It occurs to me that the Ames 2040 Plan workshops have not been heavily attended and we may actually get more people tuning in if they think they can sit at home and watch.”


Plans are to discuss Ames Plan 2040 as an agenda item in a regular city council meeting on April 12, and make a decision on a future workshop on May 19.


City staff will reach out to representatives from RDG Planning and Design on their availability.


“If we believe that we can deliberate properly in the best interest of the city electronically over video format then it seems like we can continue to work with these workshops,” said council member Tim Gartin. “There’s going be a lot of things that we’ll have to push off the schedule because of COVID-19, but to the degree we can maintain some normalcy and keep projects moving, I think we should try and do that.”


The new comprehensive plan could be drafted for adoption by the end of the summer.


While some projects will move forward as the city leaders figure out how to adhere to social distancing requirements, other projects such as — affordable housing projects on South Tripp Street may be temporarily halted due to restrictions on in-person visits.


“We’re all gonna get frustrated because there’s a lot of stuff we want to do that’s going to get slid back as the world is not in normal times right now, and that’s going to put us behind on a lot of projects that you want goal wise,” said Schainker. “There are a lot of consultants that won’t even travel to other areas and do work with us that’s required by their own firm’s policy.”


When it comes to resident input, the City Council will continue to allow public comments and hearings through call-ins. However, city staff will limit resident engagement to virtual communication for future council and board and commission meetings.


“The public will not be allowed to come in (to City Chambers) physically but they certainly will be allowed to participate electronically in offering public input,” said Mayor John Haila.


State laws require that city councils hold a public hearing before taking an action, including but not limited to awarding construction bids, disposing of city property, and rezoning a property.


The Council also pushed to postpone agenda items that may require “convoluted or excess participation.”


To ensure that all residents can engage with a meeting, Schainker said city staff will work to ensure there are both internet and call-in options.


The city of Ames livestreams its weekly meetings on its official YouTube page, and posts audio and visual components of each meeting on its official website.