Thursday, June 24, 2021

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
Ph: 336.228.7851

THE PUBLIC ASKS: Why are some city, town halls remaining closed as businesses, schools reopen?

Some not planning to reopen until June

QUESTION: Why are Graham city hall and some other town halls for smaller towns in Alamance County still closed?

ANSWER: Graham’s city hall as well as town halls in Haw River, Elon, and Gibsonville remain closed – as they have been over the past year – because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Managers of the jurisdictions provided varying degrees of explanation about why their municipality’s headquarters remain closed when so many other dimensions of local government, local business, local industry, and most recently local schools have re-opened.

For instance, Burlington’s and Mebane’s city halls are open, as are the county’s office building in downtown Graham, most court-related offices, the register of deeds, and now each of the schools within the school system has re-opened.

The newspaper also asked the jurisdictions why they should be closed when most businesses up and down the street from their offices are open – in many cases for many months, or even during the entire pandemic.

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The largest jurisdiction still closed is Graham’s city hall. Interim city manager Aaron Holland explained, “We’re providing staff the opportunity to receive both shots with the 2 week after-shot timeframe,” Holland told the newspaper this week, “so we’re in the midst of that as we speak.”

Asked why Graham has remained closed when some other jurisdictions are open, Holland insisted, “I really don’t know what others are doing, and it’s really up to them to choose to open or not. We will err on the side of caution due to the cases we had to deal with,” he says, “and proceeding in this manner is the approach that we chose for our employees.”

Haw River town manager Sean Tencer echoed a similar sentiment, emphasizing that it is not necessarily safe for town workers to meet the public.

Tencer also used the example of having as a prerequisite for reopening that town workers are vaccinated. “Not everyone has had their immunizations,” Tencer said. He used himself as an example; he said he’s had one of the two vaccination shots needed to be effective against COVID-19.

Tencer said some town employees are older and thus more vulnerable to the disease.
“I’m taking this [the pandemic] seriously,” he said. Tencer noted that the town council had asked him to monitor the situation, particularly as to what other towns are doing about reopening.

Indeed, in written responses or elaborations to the newspaper, all four jurisdictions said they were looking at one another’s policies before deciding whether or when to reopen.

Tencer also said he had “not had a single complaint” about town hall being closed.

Tencer, Gibsonville’s town manager Ben Baxley, and Elon town manager Richard Roedner all said that town staff will usually open the door when someone knocks, to see what they need and how or whether a staff person can assist.

In fact, when an Alamance News reporter went to each of the three smaller locations, a staff member at both Haw River and Gibsonville came to the door to ask if they could assist or respond to the reporter’s needs.

“People who need help can come knock on the [front] door,” Haw River’s Tencer said, giving as an example that he had even prepared a building permit for someone who showed up at town hall.

According to Gibsonville town manager Ben Baxley, “Town hall is currently accessible to the public if they arrive at the front door and call, knock on the door, or knock on the front window.”

Elon town manager Roedner: “We do schedule appointments with residents or other individuals as needed, either in person or via Zoom, based on the individual’s preference. We have phone numbers on the front door for anyone to use to get in touch with the staff member they wish to contact. With our small lobby, managing more than one or two people can be problematic as far as separation goes,” Roedner said.

All of the four jurisdictions whose municipal buildings are closed said arrangements for face-to-face meetings can be set up or scheduled by appointments.

The smaller jurisdictions (Haw River, Gibsonville, and Elon) were asked why the town hall is closed to the public when the elected boards – Haw River town council and Gibsonville and Elon’s board of aldermen – conduct their meetings in the buildings once or twice a month.
Graham’s city council has conducted most of its meetings by the Zoom teleconferencing platform, except that council members have met in the council chambers at city hall twice in recent months.

In Gibsonville, Baxley explained the board of aldermen’s meetings: “The board of aldermen has been conducting their meetings in-person with social distancing guidelines because we do not currently have the technological capacity to conduct virtual meetings.”

In Elon, Roedner explained that the aldermen have “been meeting regularly, in person (frequently with one or more board members attending via Zoom), since last summer, with a total limit of 10 persons in the room.”

He added that the aldermen had “opted to temporarily forego their first meeting each month [the board has traditionally met one night each of the first two weeks of the month], which is used to confirm the agenda for the regular meeting [the following week], in an effort to reduce exposure risks. I suspect that issue will be brought up at our April meeting,” he added.

 

Other changes on the horizon, whether prompted by COVID or not
In some cases, town administrators cite unrelated reasons as contributing to the current closure, or mentioned potential changes in policy unrelated to the pandemic.

In Gibsonville, town manager Ben Baxley says, “We are in the process of waiting for our contractor to begin an ADA improvements project at town hall that includes the installation of an automated opening device on the front entrance doors and the removal and replacement of concrete walk area at the front entrance.”

In Haw River, town manager Sean Tencer says a side entrance into town hall may be permanently closed when the town hall does reopen, citing potential (non-medical) safety concerns from having an entrance where front desk personnel cannot see people as they enter the building.

 

When will they reopen?
Gibsonville’s manager Baxley says his town’s target date for reopening town hall is Friday, June 4.

Elon manager Roedner says Elon’s target date for reopening is Monday, June 7. Roedner added that the June date “would also be after the exodus of students from [the Elon University] campus, resulting in less active atmosphere.”


Read the newspaper’s editorial opinion on the issue: https://alamancenews.com/why-are-some-town-halls-still-closed/

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