By Taneen Momeni
Like all of us, councilmembers serving on the College Park City Council have been challenged over the past two years. In addition to navigating a full range of pandemic restrictions, they have also had to flex and adjust to meeting in different places and in different ways. The College Park Here & Now spoke with four city councilmembers about their experiences navigating these challenges.
Councilmember Denise Mitchell (District 4) served from 2009 to 2015 and was reelected in 2017. When she first joined the council, meetings were held in the old city hall building on Baltimore Avenue. Then in 2019, council meetings moved to Davis Hall while the old building was torn down and the new city hall was built.
“I will say I definitely did not prefer being in Davis Hall because it was so cramped,” she said.
Councilmember Maria Mackie (District 4), who joined in 2019, never experienced the old city hall, as the council was already meeting in Davis Hall when she was elected. Mackie echoed Mitchell’s point about how compact Davis Hall was. She noted, too, that the tightness of the room had some advantages.
“Davis Hall was very close, and your neighbor was right next to you. You could just whisper a question or something like that,” Mackie said. “It was more informal, which probably differed a lot from being in city hall.”
Mackie attended council meetings in Davis Hall for just a few months before the meetings shifted to virtual, due to the pandemic.
Going virtual challenged some councilmembers, who occasionally ran into technical difficulties and also had to adjust to a different kind of interpersonal experience. “It’s hard to read people over Zoom. I’ve really missed my colleagues, interacting with them, chatting with them before and after meeting,” Mackie said.
But councilmembers noted that meeting virtually had benefits, too. Some found it easier to balance their responsibilities, and others noted that going virtual opened up new avenues for constituents to participate. Councilmember Kate Kennedy (District 1), who joined council in 2017, appreciated how going virtual with her council work allowed her to spend more time with her family.
“It’s a lot easier to have work-life balance when you’re at home. It’s a lot easier to have dinner with my family [and] then go to the [virtual] meeting,” Kennedy said. “I understand the value of being in person, and it’s important, but I wish that we wouldn’t do everything in person … That work-life balance does make it easier.”
Councilmember Llatetra Brown Esters (District 2), who joined the council in December 2020, attended meetings virtually for her first year as a councilmember.
“I served for a year, and for a year, [meetings] were virtual,” Brown Esters said. “I think that the virtual option has allowed more people to participate, which I think is important.”
Councilmembers Mackie and Mitchell also noted that virtual meetings offered constituents broader access and promoted increased safety during the pandemic. And councilmembers are weighing the benefits of offering a virtual option, moving forward.
“… It helps us to be able to have a hybrid type of function where you can meet online or you can meet at home,” Mitchell noted. “It’s been a very interesting journey regards to our council meetings and serving in a physical space for so long … and having to make this pivot due to this COVID really has taught us that we had to start to think out of the box for our meetings and to be able to accommodate every type of situation that occurs.”
It’s been a long and bumpy road for the city’s councilmembers, and even their move into the new city hall has been challenging. The council met in the new facility in December, reverted to meeting virtually, due to the omicron variant, and then returned to in-person meetings in mid-February. Now settled in at the spacious new city hall, all four councilmembers we spoke with are impressed with the facility.
“I think the new space is gorgeous. It’s nice to be there. Safety-wise, it’s better.” Kennedy said.
“I love the new city hall, I love the chambers. The work definitely feels official when you’re sitting there in person,” Brown Esters said.
And these four councilmembers are grateful for the generous support of city staff, who have supported the council through their many transitions.
Mitchell summed up her appreciation: “The staff have done a wonderful job. And kudos to the former City Manager Scott [Somers], who started the process with the new city hall, and Kenny [Young], for working with staff. They’ve done a marvelous job,” she said.