The City Council held a regular meeting in the Council Chamber at City Hall on Oct. 19. The session required social distancing and other accommodations in order to be compliant with COVID-19 restrictions, such as allowing people to submit written public comments and live-streaming the event. With a full agenda and multiple contesting issues, the meeting started at 7:00 p.m and lasted until 11:40 p.m.
Stephanie Browning, the Boone County Director of Public Health, presented an update on COVID-19 to the City Council. Browning mentioned there has been a decrease in testing but an increase in both hospitalizations and cases over the past few weeks, a discrepancy which alludes to a delay in an investigation.
“Last week we had 100 cases which is the highest we have had in a long time,” Browning said in the public statement. “It’s made it a little bit harder to keep up the contact tracing. Last time I was here [at a City Council meeting], one of the things that I was happy with was that we had the contact tracing at about one to two days once we had received the results, and we’re now at four days.”
With hospitalizations increasing, hospitals are having problems diverting cases they cannot handle. This process is not uncommon, and it generally picks up during the flu season; however, it is worsening as a result of COVID-19. Boone Hospital tried to extend their search to hospitals in a 160-mile radius, including ones in St. Louis, and still could not find a place to send cases.
“…one of the things that I was happy with was that we had the contact tracing at about one to two days once we had received the results, and we’re now at four days.”
There is also the issue of COVID-19 “long-haulers”, or people who are still recovering weeks or months after their initial symptoms. Studies show that long-term impacts may include heart muscle and cognitive harm. Pat Fowler, City Council Member for Ward 1, posed a question on when they should look toward allocating resources to people in this position. Browning said there is currently no formal process to capture those numbers and the extent of such health damage.
Mike Trapp, City Council Member for Ward 2, asked Browning about the racial disparities in cases. During the summer, COVID-19 cases among people of color were overrepresented within the population. Now, however, as MU students returned, the number of cases in white people has increased. The proportion of cases among black people has consequently decreased, as they make up 11% of cases while being 9% of the county’s population.
Browning called to extend the current public health order, as increased cases are anticipated as a result of elementary students returning to school and the approaching flu season. She said she does not want to make any exceptions for restaurants who want to close later than the mandated 10:30 p.m. and will work on assessing the impact of the restaurant order on COVID-19 cases.
“[Contact tracing] is not a perfect science,” Browning said. “People have to be honest with us.”
Deputy City Manager De’Carlon Seewood spoke about the work with certain community stakeholders in response to George Floyd’s death and the following protests. This initiative interviews stakeholders in Columbia to “identify key objectives” that protestors and activists have. Together, Seewood and the stakeholders’ representatives are looking at policies to help the city while interviewing the stakeholders, police, chamber, and Columbia Public Schools. Seewood was scheduled to give the full report of the work so far, but he said the group felt they were “not ready” and instead provided an update.
Since July 21, Seewood has held 25 meetings with 72 different individuals, totaling 31 hours of interviewing. A common theme in participants was that they wanted to see council members and police at places other than their respective commitments. Seewood also said people want to shift the responsibility on mental health issues from police officers to trained counselors. Seewood said the group has been working together and the process is going well. Fowler, however, said when she went to one of the meetings, people seemed disappointed.
“I want this to be a success,” Council Member Pat Fowler said, “but I don’t want to pretend it’s going well.”
She said many people were dissatisfied. She also said she thought it must be disrespectful to the representatives for the interviewers to ask them the same questions over and over again without actually listening to them. A young Black athlete from the stakeholder meeting stuck out to Fowler, as the activist spoke to the trauma he experienced as an African-American and how he had to experience it repeatedly.
Roy Lovelady, President of Peoples’ Defense, spoke during the public comment section of the meeting. He set aside time to mention his own experience with the community stakeholders initiative, corroborating Fowler’s sentiments.
“A lot of what was reported out was not true. The stakeholders are angry and upset,” Lovelady said in a public comment. “Today was supposed to be the day that we actually came and spoke to you at the City Council. But, because it was so chaotic … a lot of people’s voices were pushed under the rug. This whole process to me has been a waste of time. They are not listening. There is no plan of attack. There is no process. There is no real timeline. There [are] so many things that are breaking the trust of people we call stakeholders.”
Fowler said she wants to have a work session with the stakeholders to directly address the concerns. She asked to schedule the meeting in a way that is convenient for the stakeholders and is not based on the Council’s preferred timing. The Council decided to find a time and place for a direct engagement with the group of stakeholders.
“I would also like to recommend that we do not sit up here, a couple feet higher than them,” Fowler said, “but we sit with them at the same level in the largest space you can find so as many people can be accommodated as possible.
Lovelady, a frequent participant in Black Lives Matter protests in town, also spoke on the subject of chokeholds and said “exceptions mean anything forbidden is allowed.” The current policy bans these restraints, except for certain extraordinary circumstances. Lovelady used stories of his experience as both a witness and a victim to chokeholds as evidence of the police department’s use of chokeholds despite the ban. He said there were never any reports for either instance.
“…we called the police for medical attention for my mother because she was having a mental breakdown,” Lovelady said. “She had a knife at first but the knife was taken from her before she exited out the door. When she came out the door, she was immediately placed into a chokehold and thrown to the ground.”
Lovelady said there have been 13 known deaths in the US this year due to chokeholds, including George Floyd. He mentioned there is no data on any incidents of chokeholds in Columbia and a lack of proper training on chokeholds in the Columbia Police Department (CPD).
Bill Easley, a former candidate to represent Ward 1 on the City Council in 2014, delivered a scheduled public comment to voice dissatisfaction toward the police department. He said he has never seen any police patrolling or caring for low-income neighborhoods. Easley said we don’t need chokeholds but need the CPD to do their job and patrol in low-income neighborhoods.
“When she came out the door, she was immediately placed into a chokehold and thrown to the ground.”
Geoff Jones, Chief of the CPD, outlined his concerns with the chokehold ban. Jones called the new policy, a more restrictive ban on chokeholds, a “largely symbolic” move. He said chokeholds are a deadly force; however, the CPD officers may need them for certain situations. Jones elaborated that chokeholds are a better option than firing a gun and removing the option of a less deadly force would force officers to more frequently employ a more lethal alternative.
The new policy language for the chokeholds ban would be more restrictive, requiring an “absolute” ban on the use of chokeholds. City Council will have a public hearing in November to discuss the new ordinance.
The City Council convenes every first and third Monday of the month at 7 p.m. The next meeting will be on Nov. 2, and it will be live-streamed and open for the public. The discussion topics can be seen on the published agenda.