In response to growing numbers of COVID-19 cases in states and communities across the country, municipal governments are being forced to either close their meetings to the public or operate meetings entirely remotely. However, most communities are subject to sunshine laws, accessibility laws, or concerns about public engagement. How are local governments responding to this shift in operations during the crisis, and what additional changes should communities consider?
Cities that have some practice with streaming meetings or airing them on television may wish to close council chambers to the public and add an option for public participation and comment. Some cities have augmented their existing stream with a variety of teleconferencing options. If possible, cities may wish to organize an advance sign-up for public comment to better organize unmuting speakers’ connections or encourage residents to comment in writing by email or by voice recording.
Many municipalities are using teleconferencing or video-streaming services to provide residents with live access to council, board and commission meetings. The City of Kenmore, Washington recently convened a task force via Zoom, and showed the proceedings live on the city’s YouTube channel. Kenmore plans to hold future public meetings and even city staff meetings using Zoom. The City of Bloomington, Indiana televises its council meetings and is encouraging members of the public to submit comments by email rather than coming in person. The City of Glendale, Arizona has shifted its council meetings to optionally teleconference and is now allowing residents to comment via email and voicemail. The City of Columbia, South Carolina streamed its “virtual meeting.”
The City of Longmont, Colorado has moved its council meetings online and is taking public comments virtually in writing, video, or phone message. The City of Atlanta has also begun moving public meetings online, allowing residents to provide comments by calling in and using a “virtual platform” for votes and documents. The City of Worcester, Massachusetts held in-person council meetings, but barred public attendance and took public comment via a teleconference line. The City of Fort Worth streamed council meetings via the city website and municipal cable channel, and provided a call-in option for members of the public who signed up in advance to provide comments.
Some states have responded to the crisis by temporarily loosening open meetings or sunshine laws. Massachusetts, Louisiana, Texas, and Nebraska have all adjusted open meeting to allow government activity to continue while gatherings of people are prohibited. Cities, towns and villages should request such a waiver if one is not already in place from the state, and check to see what requirements remain in place.
For example, municipalities may still be required to publicize the date, time, and agenda of the meeting in advance as normal. They may also be required to allow for public participation, which may be a challenge for communities considering technological options. Simply streaming a meeting via a service like Facebook or YouTube may not sufficiently allow members of the public to provide comments and address councils or boards. Additionally, not all residents may have an adequate broadband connection to stream a meeting – and the government building itself, if the normal council chambers are used, may not have sufficient bandwidth to host the event.
Communities should consider the access needs of residents, and provide a variety of options for participation, if possible. For example, cities may wish to broadcast meetings live using a variety of platforms, such as cable television, YouTube, social media, and telephone. Cities should also provide as many options as can be reasonably managed for public comments, such as allowing comments in writing, recording, or live phone comment. Cities should consider the access needs of disabled residents when developing options for participation.
The coming weeks and months will provide an important opportunity for cities to explore new technologies and find ways to engage residents without an in-person connection. However, one silver lining of the crisis may be that city council meetings become accessible to more residents who previously could not or would not attend a meeting in city hall in-person. Shifting to new formats presents city managers and local elected officials with an opportunity and a challenge to engage not just the residents who are most plugged-in, but those who had not previously interacted with their local governments.
About the Author: Angelina Panettieri is the Legislative Manager for Information Technology and Communications at the National League of Cities. Follow her on twitter at @AngelinainDC.