As COVID-19 brought an abrupt end to many in-person city and town council meetings in March 2020, councils worked to master the move to virtual meetings. With many choosing to avoid gatherings of people, the question became: how does the public still communicate concerns and get its questions answered?
Municipalities have innovated to ensure residents can make their voices heard – whether through emailed statements, questions sent in advance of meetings or comments made during livestreamed meetings.
The change to new technology and practices hasn’t always been easy or smooth. Even so, some cities say they’ve had increased participation and interest from the public with virtual gatherings, and they pledge to continue to consider ways to improve transparency and enhance engagement going forward.
“Maintaining transparency throughout this pandemic was of utmost importance as critical decisions were made at a rapid pace and there was some business such as project approvals that needed to proceed,” said Eric DeMoura, Mount Pleasant town administrator. “Transparency and access are most important during times of crisis and uncertainty.”
Mount Pleasant uses Microsoft Teams and streams its virtual committee meetings through YouTube, allowing the town to use a conference call feature so the public can call in to provide comments. The town masks private phone numbers from public view.
“This is critical for ensuring that our citizens maintained their rights to address public bodies, but also to do so in a way that protected their personal information,” DeMoura said.
The town set up individual streaming links before posting agendas so that the links were available on the agendas. It was already streaming full council meetings before the pandemic, but the town expanded this effort to include council’s committees as well as other boards and commissions such as the design review board and the board of zoning appeals.
The town purchased the Agenda Center module through its website provider, allowing it to share agendas and meeting minutes in various formats. The module makes finding specific files among the enormous amount of meeting minutes and agendas easier and more intuitive.
“Now, our meetings are arranged by public body and by year. There is also an advanced search function that enables users to search for specific topics if they don’t happen to know the specific date a topic was brought before the public body,” DeMoura said.
After posting to the Agenda Center on the town’s website, Mount Pleasant adds streaming links and agendas to the town’s Facebook page the day of the meeting, since Facebook is its most active page with the largest audience.
The Darlington City Council met on Zoom and had strong viewership when it broadcast its meetings for about three months after the pandemic began. Residents offered written comments – by mail or email – in advance that were verified with the sender and then read at the meetings.
But a proposal to increase water and sewer rates after the collapse of one of the city’s main sewer trunk lines caused Darlington to explore the best way to gauge public input, said Howard Garland, Darlington city manager.
“We had to raise our sewer rates 60% and our water rates 40%. We didn’t feel like taking virtual comments was the proper thing to do,” Garland said. “So, in May, we moved our meetings to the Harmon Baldwin Gym.”
About a dozen people showed up to voice their concerns at the in-person meeting, which was also streamed on Facebook. Broadcasting meetings from the cavernous gym proved difficult because of internet access and sound issues.
“Nobody could hear. The people watching on Facebook were like, ‘We can’t hear you. You’re trying to hide something from us.’ No, we’re just in the gym. That was a frustrating thing. We tried enhancing microphones and having microphones for each council member,” Garland said.
The council later moved its meetings to its municipal courtroom, where members and department heads can socially distance and there is space available for members of the media to attend.
“We’ve kept the component of streaming live on Facebook. That goes over very well. We have lively meetings … Folks like to watch that,” he said. “Streaming has caught on. I believe we will keep that aspect of it once everything shakes out.”
Lisa Chalian-Rock, the director of planning and economic development and director of downtown development, has taken the main role in streaming the meetings. She said the reaction from Darlington residents has been positive.
“When you look at the numbers, hundreds are reached by Facebook. It’s like, ‘Wow, people care about what happens in their local government.’ I’m happy to see people excited about civic activity. That was a good thing, that more people were getting involved,” she said. “It definitely helps with transparency and giving people access. As soon as we did it the first time on Facebook, I had comments from citizens saying, ‘I’m so glad you’re doing this.’”
As for the future of streaming, Chalian-Rock said with a laugh, “As soon as the first meeting was over, I knew I was stuck with it.”
In Clemson, live streaming meetings on YouTube began more than a year ago. At that time, a powerful sound system had been installed in council chambers and municipal court. The city also installed a new phone system with conference bridges that can handle up to 20 incoming calls at a time, allowing the public to call-in with comments, said Lowell C. Arwood II, director of information technology for the City of Clemson.
“COVID kind of swept the legs out from underneath all of us. But city council has been very supportive over the years to get to the point we’re at now,” Arwood said.
Clemson invested more funds after COVID-19 for a system that ties into the city hall sound system and allows the IT department to better control the software for live streaming. It also provides two conference calling bridges, including one for the public to call in during the public comment period.
Arwood said one of the biggest challenges was getting the public to understand video conferencing meeting etiquette. “If you have pets, get somebody to watch them. If another person is speaking to council, click your mute button. It took a month or two for people to figure that out,” he said.
Cities also need to stay alert and closely monitor real-time public comments that are broadcast live, he said.
“It’s challenging when dealing with public meetings. All council members want you to be as transparent as you can, but you also have some constraints,” he said.
Making meetings virtually accessible brings challenges and opportunities, and it’s likely to keep doing so long after the pandemic is over.