DONNA — COVID-19 concerns put the kibosh on a pair of public meetings that were slated to take place here Tuesday afternoon.
The news came after a bevy of city staffers had already gathered at the Donna Recreation Center in preparation for meetings of the Development Corporation of Donna 4B and the city council.
The twin meetings were set to occur at noon and 12:15 p.m., respectively. However, access to the meetings was limited to in-person attendance only, with no telephonic or online options.
But, as noon came and went, there was no sign either meeting would begin. At three minutes past the hour, a city staffer began gathering up preparation materials she had set out only moments before.
“We just got notice that, I believe, two of our commissioners are in quarantine,” she said, adding that not enough members of the EDC were present to establish a quorum. Nor were any members of the city council present.
Donna has several governing boards responsible for overseeing the city’s economic decisions. Aside from the EDC 4B, there is also the Donna Economic Development Corporation (EDC 4A) and the Donna International Bridge Corporation, which oversees the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge.
Members of the city council serve on all three boards, including Mayor Rick Morales and Place 2 Councilman Joey Garza, who are members of the EDC 4B board.
But, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across the country last spring, Donna, like many Rio Grande Valley cities, began to hold public meetings remotely — empowered by Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency orders, which allowed for the suspension of certain provisions of the Texas Open Meetings Act.
In the 10 months since the open meetings law was relaxed, Donna officials have held the majority of their meetings via phone, with audio of the discussions broadcast live via the online streaming application, Twitch.
But the city has not made every meeting remotely accessible. Some, such as the two scheduled for Tuesday, have been open only to in-person attendees.
With risk of contracting COVID-19 still a concern, officials moved those in-person meetings from the small legislative chamber at the rear of Donna City Hall to the expansive basketball court inside the rec center.
City Manager Carlos Yerena said the reason the city has been calling for more in-person meetings is to try to recapture a sense of what was, before the pandemic.
“We wanted to go back to … try to get some sort of normalcy, but we’re seeing that we’re probably gonna have to go back to online meetings,” Yerena said as city staff began to leave the recreation center Tuesday.
And though Donna has ramped up the rate of in-person meetings — some six out of the 12 meetings scheduled in January so far — it has been selective when it has held other meetings in person.
Since Sept. 1, 2020, the city has scheduled 52 public meetings. The majority of those — 44 — have involved the city council, the two EDC boards or the international bridge board. The remainder have involved the Planning and Zoning Committee, Board of Adjustments, or other advisory boards.
In that time, some eight meetings — including Tuesday’s two — were canceled, according to copies of meeting agendas posted to the city’s website.
Prior to January, the city scheduled only six other meetings to be held in person.
The in-person meetings have one thing in common: officials were slated to take action on some of Donna’s most vital financial issues.
The agendas for January’s half dozen in-person-only meetings include discussions about the revolving loan program loan for a Donna physician who is also an EDC member, a Chapter 380 tax abatement agreement for a commercial real estate developer, using public debt to pay city expenditures, and the city’s latest attempt to create new revenue streams via the formation of public/private partnerships.
Donna also held an in-person-only meeting on Nov. 11, just after the outcome of the municipal election cemented a shift in political control of the council.
At that meeting, the council restructured the international bridge board and the two EDC boards, as well as hired new general counsel.
The city also held a spate of in-person-only meetings in September, when the council deliberated the fiscal budgets for the two EDCs and the city, as well as the property tax rate.
But other meetings, including an emergency meeting on Nov. 13, have been held remotely.
Throughout December, November and October, housekeeping decisions — such as approving property plats, conditional use permits, and approving various signs of progress at a commercial development site — all took place at meetings accessible remotely, with rare exception.
Yerena, the city manager, said the pandemic has upended daily operations, including public meetings.
“We’re doing the best that we can under the circumstances. You know, it’s been difficult for communities to function, and we’re doing the best that we can,” Yerena said Tuesday.
“But we’re probably gonna have to go back to the online,” he said.