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Del Mar delays return to in-person meetings until September

DEL MAR — The Del Mar City Council opted on Monday to continue holding city public meetings in a solely remote format through September, with the possibility of bringing them back earlier, even as the majority of jurisdictions in San Diego County return to in-person meetings.

City staff originally recommended a June timeline for the return to the council chambers for meetings, as part of the city’s move to Phase 2 of COVID-19 reopening protocols.

The council, however, expressed a desire to continue in a remote format until the fall due to recent small spikes in COVID-19 cases, a light meeting schedule over the summer, and the need for staff to adjust to a new work format in the coming months.

No vote was taken on the matter, but three of the five council members expressed strong support for the idea while Councilman Dave Druker and Mayor Dwight Worden said they were fine with either option.

The council has just four meetings scheduled between June and September, according to the council calendar.

“We’re a small city with a small staff that’s stretched pretty thin, and by coming back in September instead of June, we are helping our staff help us,” said Councilwoman Terry Gaasterland. “There remains uncertainty [with COVID-19], and we are highly comfortable as a council with continuing in this mode.”

As staff pointed out, Del Mar is one of only two jurisdictions in the county — along with National City — still holding meetings entirely remotely; neighboring North County cities including Encinitas, Solana Beach, San Marcos, Vista, Carlsbad and Oceanside have all resumed in person.

When the council does return to the chambers, a remote option for at-home viewers is unlikely to continue due to the “cost of specialized equipment needed, additional staff needed to support hybrid meetings, and complicated logistics of integrating in-person and remote participants,” according to a staff report.

City Hall has been in Phase 1 of its COVID-19 reopening plan, which allows for limited in-person public services with COVID safety protocols, since July 2021. Under this phase, walk-in payments and general services are available during regular business hours for in-person service, and staff is rotating between in-office and at-home work, with most meetings taking place over Zoom.

For Phase 2, staff also recommended transitioning to a mask-optional policy for city facilities by June 1 and discontinuing walk-in services at the public services counter due to low usage, instead offering remote or by-appointment services.

City Manager Ashley Jones also discussed plans for a permanent teleworking policy permitting staff to work remotely up to two days per week, with Friday designated as a teleworking day during which City Hall is closed to the public but staff members are able to answer urgent calls.

According to Jones, some neighboring cities like Solana Beach already close their city halls to the public every other Friday in an effort to provide flexibility to employees, and very few Del Mar residents are utilizing in-person services at this time, particularly at the end of the week.

“The infrequency, even pre-COVID, of people coming to public works in person … it’s not enough of a frequency to even warrant a Zoom room,” said Jones.

Councilwoman Tracy Martinez, however, expressed concerns about residents being unable to access needed information services on Fridays if no one is there to answer the phone, for example.

“Why should our residents have less access [than other cities]?” Martinez asked.

Jones said the city will make sure that office phone lines forward calls and messages to staff if they are working remotely, to ensure residents can find the information they need.

City staff also assured council members that these COVID-19 guidelines can be altered at any time if they see fit.

This week, transportation agencies, including North County Transit District, have started rolling back COVID-19 restrictions. On Tuesday, the NCTD board voted to end the mandatory mask policy for riders and employees, according to wire reports.

“Based on updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the North Country Transit District will no longer require face coverings to be worn on board vehicles or in stations, effective immediately,” said Colleen Windsor, spokeswoman for the transit agency.

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