‘Better prepared’: Government a mix of online, in person while COVID fades
Govt. mix remote/in person as COVID recedes
Access to county facilities has been restricted for some time due to the pandemic, though the business of government continued.
With the lifting this week of the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy, the return to normalcy is on track.
In Nevada County, throughout the pandemic many county buildings and counter services remained opened, said Alison Lehman, county executive officer. County offices adapted to new models of service delivery, while expanded assistance was accessible online.
“We increased automated services, enhanced our online presence and implemented lobby management systems to reduce wait times and crowds,” said Lehman. “Beginning (this past Tuesday), we’ll resume holding public meetings in board chambers and reopen countywide services, following the most recent guidance from the California Department of Public Health.”
During the pandemic the county expanded access for residents to address the Board of Supervisors, relying on e-comment and call ins. To help stem the spread of COVID-19 the county urged those able to do so to work remotely, without sacrificing service, Lehman said. Meanwhile, some facilities never went remote, including the Sheriff’s Office and Public Works Department.
“We’re now exploring where remote work might continue, as we’ve seen improved productivity in many sectors,” said Lehman. “Staff became proficient in new telework technologies that created efficiencies in work and will continue moving forward.”
One option is to implement a hybrid telework environment aimed at supporting expanded hours for county clients and improving employee retention. The previous year’s hardships have increased the county staff’s ability to adjust to a public health safe model.
“We’re better prepared to scale operations during emergency events with the deployment of disaster service workers,” said Lehman. “We have stronger coordination than ever with our local jurisdictions, from east to west. I could not be prouder how our team provided critical resources and leadership during this ongoing event.”
Supervisor Hardy Bullock praised the changes.
“These may improve our environment, add (service) at lower cost, to more people, without travel and overhead,” Bullock explained. “This will reduce vehicle trips, reduce greenhouse gas, improve our environment and our bottom line.”
Mental health and tele-med services are two prime examples of how streamlined service make outcomes better and more affordable, Bullock said. Other services need to occur in person and the county pledges to optimize these.
“Most importantly, the safety of our community is our top priority,” he said.
Craig Griesbach, Building Department director, said core services will closely resemble those pre-pandemic.
However, there will be some tweaks. The department will use appointment check-in software to facilitate front counter and online services. It allows remote check-ins to get in line while traveling to the Eric Rood Administrative Center.
“We’ll be adapting our ‘drop and pick-up box service’ service in the main lobby area,” said Griesbach. This allows customers to quickly drop and pick up plans and permits. Recent improvements include online permit insurance and fee payments.
Tim Kiser, Grass Valley city manager, said he was waiting for this past Tuesday’s revocation of the state’s color code tiered framework. Any permanent changes would hinge on that change.
As far as Zoom meetings are concerned, Kiser said the council would prefer to change back to in-person meetings. Public comment will be available by remote means.
“Before, we’d always explored ways to comment before a meeting with email and voicemail. Currently, we also accept comments on Zoom.”
Concerning the biggest change the pandemic created was the closing of City Hall to the public, prompting people to do their business online, including paying bills, obtaining building permits, and scheduling building plan reviews, which allowed contractors to continue business while City Hall remain closed.
In Nevada City, City Manager Joan Phillipe noted government operations will essentially remain the same as before the crisis struck. But regarding Zoom meetings, she was not certain.
“The city will continue to broadcast as it did prior to the pandemic,” she said. “We are in the process of upgrading the IT system in the chambers, to be able to hold meetings back in the chambers.”
Many employees have returned to City Hall. But if there are circumstances that require working remotely, the city will work with the individual to accommodate the request.
The biggest changes because of the pandemic were technological, Phillipe said. Glitches to Zoom were worked out quickly. However, the lack of in-person meetings was difficult because staff lost a sense of personal interaction that was not possible in Zoom.
“Applicants who would otherwise have had the opportunity to sit down in person with staff to review an application or project now had to do so by phone or other means,” said Phillipe.
Other challenges included addressing impacts on local businesses, including providing for outdoor dining and street closure.
“City Hall is already reopened to the public (masks required) and as soon as council chamber upgrades are complete, council and Planning Commission will be able to meet in person again,” she said.
Initially, the public will not be allowed in chambers, but have access to all meetings online, as has been the case throughout the pandemic.
William Roller is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at email@example.com
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