by Maksim Pecherskiy and Julian Benabides
April 6, 2020
With COVID-19 forcing people to work from home, city council members and staff are moving their council meetings online. This requires cities to integrate telecommuting technology into their meetings fast.
We thought we’d provide some helpful tips on how to make this happen without turning your council members into potatoes.
Public meetings are officially recorded in the municipality’s history and are a core process of forming legislation. Votes can be challenged in court later on if the meeting did not meet a physical quorum (if the policy requires it), or if the meeting is not noticed under Sunshine Laws like the Brown Act.
Before your city dives into remote public meetings, discuss your situation with the city Attorney.
Council members, the city clerk, the city attorney, and staff that will be presenting items during the meeting. They have full control of the mic and screen share.
These are members of the audience that will be making public comments or asking questions (if this is allowed in your meetings).
These are members of the audience that will only be viewing a stream of the meeting without interacting with any other participants.
Remote public meetings can’t happen without the right technology. The centerpiece of this technology is videoconferencing or webinar software. Here are some key things you should look for when choosing a solution:
Don’t choose a platform that the public must pay to use, and avoid making people install software to participate – they should be able to join via browser.
Some people don’t have a tablet or a Computer. Let them dial-in over the phone, and tell them how to do so.
Let people register to attend the meeting (this is a great way to receive public comment as well). Let them know that their name will be visible to other attendees.
Record the meeting to be viewed later by the public. Recording the meeting is also helpful later for the person compiling notes or minutes, and it can be shared on social media.
Let presenting participants share their screen – especially staff when they’re showing their slide-decks for agenda items.
Some software, such as Zoom, allows meeting participants to send a message visible to all participants, or to send a private 1:1 message to another participant. Decide if you want to allow this feature or not in your meetings.
A practice run is critical to have an effective meeting. Test every aspect of the meeting, including the experience of the viewing participants, presenting participants, the active participants, and the registration process. You don’t want to be trying to figure out how to unmute a citizen in the middle of a meeting.
Remember, Sunshine Laws may prevent a dry run meeting by a quorum of council members that is not noticed by the public. Do a dry run with 1 or 2 council members at a time to prevent this. A dry run will also help you know who the presenting participants will be for the meeting.
Additionally, make sure to teach presenting participants how to avoid snafus like accidentally showing their emails while presenting on a shared screen, or showing personal notifications. Mac and Windows both have guides on how to stop notifications.
This person is in charge of the meeting behind the scenes, making everything run smoothly. They will unmute participants, provide screen share, record the meeting, and perform many other behind-the-scenes duties.
Tell people where the meeting is happening, when, and how to get to it. Some municipalities require an agenda to be posted outside of City Hall to fulfill the noticing requirements. Speak to your attorney about how you can fulfill this requirement during the shelter-in-place.
You trained your presenting participants. What about everyone else? Provide clear instructions to your audience before they join.Zoom has a great tutorial site for their software.
The FBI has issued an official warning about unauthorized users joining the classroom. Make sure that you have correctly assigned permissions to presenting participants and members of the public. Your moderator can assign passwords to people, or vet them while the users wait in a waiting room. This is a great thing to test during your dry run. You can also use the registration process to keep out people who have disrupted previous meetings.
It's every resident's right to participate in public meetings, and going remote should not prevent that. The City of Saco has a great example of this process:
With the shift to remote meetings, we have modified how we receive public comments. At this time, the Saco City Council is accepting written public comment in place of in-person participation. Written public comments must be e-mailed to City Administrator Bryan Kaenrath or mailed to Public Comment 300 Main St. Saco, ME 04072.
Public Comment received by 5 PM on the date of the Council meeting will be provided to the City Council in advance of the meeting and will become a part of the permanent record of the meetings. If e-mailing, please note “Public Comment” and the meeting date in the Subject field.
Automatically mute all participants when they join the meeting, and make sure to have this enabled before the meeting starts. The moderator can unmute people if they need to speak.
Start the meeting off with an explanation of the ground rules for participants. Explain how they can “raise their hand” to speak. It would be helpful to do a short demo for the audience.
From there on out, start with an agenda. But I won't say too much here, because your public meeting is your public meeting, and you run it the way you want. Here’s South San Francisco’s agenda for one of their online council meetings.
Make sure that the official meeting recorder is the first person to receive the recording. Then, post it to where you normally post council meetings.I'm a big fan of how Saco goes out of their way to publish their recorded meetings, Live-streaming them on FaceBook, broadcasting them on local television, and then posting them on Youtube the following day.
Display a thumbs up/down survey at the end of each meeting. If participants respond with thumbs down, they can provide additional information about what went wrong.
Public meetings have a few more rules than a typical webinar, but without too much work and a bit of prep, they can be successfully accomplished.
If you still have questions after reading this blog, we encourage you to join UrbanLeague to connect with other city officials on challenges surrounding the coronavirus.