While the COVID-19 pandemic brought some aspects of life to a halt, it caused others to pivot and go in a new direction. Technology in municipal governments might be at the top of some of those pivot lists.
While cities around the world were in lockdown, the business of running a municipality continued by way of virtual online meetings. Some cities were ready to meet the challenge. Others had to quickly patch together a way to make that happen.
Ultimately, a year and a half later, virtual meetings have become the new normal, and some cities have taken the adoption of technology to new levels.
In Kingston, N.Y., city officials have found that more and more citizens are participating in the online meetings.
“We’re realizing much more public engagement with the Zoom and YouTube meetings. People are able to see their city government first-hand,” said Mayor Steve Noble. “It’s really more convenient for people. They can make dinner, watch their children and still take in the meeting.”
Sometimes there’s one item on an agenda that matters to a citizen. He added that being able to fast-forward through a recorded meeting means getting to that item without having to sit through perhaps hours of other business.
According to Noble, the municipality of about 24,000 in Ulster County — about 90 miles north of New York City — had been “dabbling” in technology before the pandemic. The pandemic lockdown challenged Kingston to do more.
The state of New York, which at one point was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, allowed municipalities to return to in-person meetings earlier this year.
However, in September, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed legislation extending virtual access to public meetings under the state’s open meetings law until Jan. 15, 2022.
Shortly after that, Noble announced that despite an 80% vaccination rate, city board and commission meetings would be held virtually until the January deadline to be safe amid a growing number of new cases.
The city’s goal is to have new technology in place and ready to broadcast and record interactive “hybrid” meetings by the January deadline.
“We’ve had to order special equipment because we can’t just start attaching things to the walls in our city hall,” he said.
Kingston’s city hall was built in 1872. Twenty-first century equipment requires special handling in the historic building, Noble said. In addition to the technology, new furniture to house the equipment is on order.
Noble said the city is fortunate to have committed about $100,000 to the project as well as employing three full-time information technology people.
“We’re very lucky to have that kind of commitment.”
Two thousand miles west of Kingston is Aspen, Colo., where up-to-date technology is going into a modern new city hall.
Like Kingston, though, the participation in virtual meetings has boomed during the pandemic. “Yes, people are finding they can sit at the dining room table and attend a meeting,” said Robert Schober, capital asset director for the city of Aspen.
In addition to doing full virtual meetings, he said, the new technology will allow for “more seamless hybrid meetings.” Being able to do that means hearing and seeing all that happens in a meeting, along with the ability to show graphics and printed materials clearly to all participants.
Schober admitted while the plan for the $37 million city hall had been in the works for several years and construction began in February 2019 — well before the pandemic — COVID-19 changed some of the ways the building has developed.
“It for sure accelerated our technology plan when we realized an increased need for connectivity.”
According to Schober, the former silver mining town turned resort with about 7,000 residents, located 200 miles southwest of Denver, should have its new 37,500-square-foot city hall ready by the end of the year.
He described the new seat of city government as “built adjacent to and on top of a parking garage that was built in the late 1970s or early 1980s.”
When completed, the city hall will be state of the art both in infrastructure and technology, with top ratings for its geothermal heating-ventilation-air conditioning system and energy-efficient lighting plan. During the initial investigation of the building site, engineers discovered a river flowing beneath the parking garage that was monitored for several years. Schober said the water temperature is a steady 60 degrees all year, allowing for a high-tech air handling system that will keep city employees warm in winter and cool in summer, changing the building temperature based on the outside temperature and the number of people in the building.
The audio-visual technology was upgraded because of the pandemic. What is described as a full connectivity plan will include council chambers, a civic lobby, a multipurpose room and three conference rooms.
Schober said the changes will allow council members to fully participate in voting remotely, presenting remotely and taking public comment if the council or commission wishes to use that feature. The technology will also allow the city to remotely interview job candidates, receive consultants and training presentations remotely as well as potentially allowing community use of the multipurpose room.