The COVID-19 pandemic produced a plethora of obstacles for cities around the country to navigate. Not only were municipal leaders working on ways to keep their citizens healthy, but they also had to continue local government operations. One of the more difficult hurdles was the issue of holding public meetings while abiding by social distancing guidelines.
Many local governments turned to the video conferencing program Zoom to help conduct public meetings during this time. One of the many cities taking advantage of this technology was Port Orchard, Wash.
Before the pandemic, all of Port Orchard’s public meetings were held in person at city hall. While meetings were recorded, the recordings were only published after the meeting was completed. This meant that citizens had to submit comments before the meeting or attend in person to share their opinions.
“Fortunately, at the beginning of the year, we were in the midst of an initiative to digitalize our records and go paperless at our council meetings. We had issued all of our council members Microsoft Surfaces,” said Port Orchard Mayor Rob Putaansuu. “That resulted in us having the tools necessary to conduct virtual meetings.”
The virtual meetings did still receive public comments, which meant that constituents were also adapting to the new public meetings.
“We’re probably getting more attendance,” said Putaansuu. “We have a core of a handful of people that come (to physical meetings), but we have actually different people coming into our (virtual) meetings and commenting that we don’t typically see at an in-person meeting. I think it’s working, and I think it might be a tool even when we come back together to utilize some form of this live feed format going forward.”
Despite the sudden switch and a slight learning curve when it came to using new technology, the meetings were successful.
“I don’t have a council member under 50 and some are 60 and 70 years old, so it was a learning curve,” said Putaansuu. “We had a few laughs and chuckles over things like sharing screens and turning that feature off when it’s done. It’s just different than how we’ve conducted our business before so we’re having to learn some new skills.”
Once cities were forced to host virtual public meetings, many representatives realized that this is a practice that should happen all the time.
“This has been difficult for our community, and it was important to us to continue to perform our job and conduct business in the eye of the public,” said Putaansuu.
While most governments were coming up with new ways to conduct their public meetings, not much changed for Lakewood, Colo.
In 2016, representatives of the Lakewood Planning Department began looking at ways to achieve more community engagement during the public meetings.
“We decided that we really wanted to find a way to replicate the public hearing process online because we weren’t seeing a lot of participation in our planning commission meetings. We weren’t getting good representation from the public in terms of diversity in opinion, and age diversity, and racial diversity and economic diversity,” said Lakewood Planning Director Travis Parker. “The thought was everything else in life you can do on your phones these days … but people can’t participate in our government very well remotely.”
At that time, representatives of Lakewood began searching for a software centered around online public hearings, but their search came up short. They knew the need was out there, so they met with
a web development company, People Speak, which came up with the idea of LakewoodSpeaks.org.
Lakewood Speaks is an online platform used for the planning department and city council meetings. Through this website, constituents can see staff presentations, review meeting materials, ask city staff members questions and even submit comments for public record.
The city started using the Lakewood Speaks in 2017, and now that the pandemic hit, many other cities are teaming up with People Speak to create their own online platforms.
According to data collected by the city in 2019, 75% of citizens say that Lakewood Speaks increases the city’s transparency and 94% say they will use the online platform to participate in future hearings. Of the total public participation, 88% of it was done online, with 12% still being done during the in-person meetings.
The city pays a subscription for the online platform and the technology integrated with the existing camera system. And the good news is that the portal doesn’t eliminate the old-fashioned methods. Citizens are still invited to attend the public meetings, and anyone can print the material off of the website if they prefer paper documents.
When COVID-19 hit, all Lakewood had to do was socially distance during their meetings via a private Zoom call. This meant that their Zoom was unattended by citizens and took away the security issues. But, citizens were still able to participate before the meeting by leaving comments or during the meeting by watching the embedded Zoom meeting live. “Everybody’s using Zoom as a Band-Aid during COVID, but I think COVID has really shown the need that wasn’t clear to cities before 2020: of allowing people to participate from home and participate online,” said Parker. “I think that’s really brought that to the forefront, and this program and others that may be like it out there are fundamental, and I think every city is going to be doing something like this from here on out.”