After nearly two years of meeting virtually, the Montgomery County Council might return to its third-floor chamber in Rockville by early February.

The County Council staff told council members on Monday that work is being completed in the chamber to update the audio-visual system required to host and broadcast a meeting. 

Craig Howard, the deputy director for the County Council, said in an interview that the equipment in the third-floor hearing room was out-of-date. He said replacement parts have been hard to find when the system breaks.

Howard said the work on the third-floor chamber has been underway for months, but new equipment got stuck in supply-chain problems that affecting parts of the U.S. economy during the pandemic. 

The new equipment is being installed and tested this week, Howard said. If there are no problems, the room would be ready to host in-person meetings, he said.

County Council Vice President Evan Glass and Council Members Andrew Friedson and Will Jawando hinted on Monday that they are willing to return to in-person meetings as soon as possible, perhaps by late January or early February.

County Council President Gabe Albornoz said in an interview that the current surge of the coronavirus will play a role in when the council returns to in-person meetings. But it’s evident there is interest among his colleagues to return, he added.

There is a seventh-floor hearing room in the County Council Office Building in Rockville. But Howard and Albornoz said it is too small to properly distance and is typically used for committee meetings, not full council meetings.

Albornoz said the technology in the third-floor hearing room is also outdated, and it would be hard to hold full council meetings with presentations and other visuals that might be needed.

When the council returns, Albornoz said, there still will be a hybrid option for public hearings — meaning residents can testify in person or virtually. The number of people who have testified has increased, and a more diverse population has called in, he said.

When asked about the Board of Education meeting in person since August — and the council still meeting virtually — Albornoz said he respects the school board’s decision. He said the school board is showing “solidarity” with the school system, where teachers and staff members have needed to work in person.

The County Council has worked effectively in a virtual format, Albornoz added. But he admitted there are advantages to returning in person.

“There’s a benefit to being in the same suite and hallway,” Albornoz said. “You can text, email or call someone, but there’s nothing that replaces face-to-face meetings, and a lot of council business would happen in the hallways, informally and organically. And we’ve lost some of that.”

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com

Steve Bohnel

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com