Online Alternatives to In-Person Public Meetings in an Emergency
This blog post by Sean Maguire, AICP, first appeared on LinkedIn. It is reposted here with his permission.
Some of the hallmarks of public meetings today are transparency and public engagement, codified in open meetings or sunshine laws. With notable exceptions, meetings of public bodies like local and state governments, agencies, and regulatory bodies are open to the public.
The concept of an open meeting reached the federal government with the passage of the Freedom of Information Act of 1966, and 10 years later, all 50 states had an open meetings law (Aichinger, 2009).
With the arrival of Coronavirus to the United States in 2020, there has been a rapid and evolving response to preventing the spread of COVID-19 in communities. Among the recommendations issued by the Centers for Disease Control is limiting large gatherings and some states, like New York, have taken measures to limit gatherings of 500 people or more to no more than 250 people. The CDC also recommends that close person-to-person contact be avoided, keeping at least six or more feet of distance between people — known as social distancing. These numbers are even more restrictive when dealing with high-risk populations (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020).
An Example from New York State
So, what are public bodies to do when faced with balancing the public's right to transparency, openness, and engagement with a public health emergency that emphasizes social distancing. In New York State, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued Executive Order 202 on March 7, 2020, declaring a State disaster emergency due to the transmission of COVID-19. On March 13, 2020, he issued Executive Order 202.1 which suspended Article 7 of the Public Officers Law relating to public meetings (Cuomo, 2020).
In his Executive Order, he authorized the use of conference calling "or similar service" so long as the public has the ability to view or listen to the meeting, the meeting is recorded, and the meeting is later transcribed.
While public bodies can act according to the Executive Order, it may seek to preserve the transparency of the meeting and continue to offer the public an opportunity to stay engaged and provide comment. It is important to note that Executive Order 202.1 covers public meetings, but it's unclear if it extends to public hearings that may be required in some actions like the adoption of local laws. Suspension of public hearings may require additional action by the Governor or State Legislature.
Using Technology to Conduct Public Meetings and Preserve Public Engagement
As noted, in New York State, Gov. Cuomo has suspended part of the State's Open Meetings Law to allow for public bodies to meet using tools like teleconference to conduct necessary business, with caveats that provide public with a modified level of access. While this is likely a welcome solution, public bodies that value public engagement and seek to preserve at least some public comment at meetings can turn to technology and video conferencing as a potential solution.
Conference calling may not be the ideal option due to the challenges with moderation, but there are a number of different video conference solutions on the market and available. No options are identical to the other but are similar in many ways. Below you will find summaries on three products currently available: GoToWebinar, WebEx, and Zoom.
These are subscription-based services. Certain features will depend on both the product and options selected. Solutions designed for "meetings" typically contemplate a smaller group than those designed for "webinars" or "conferences." In all instances, the role of a moderator is critical in maintaining order in a virtual meeting place.
GoToWebinar is part of a suite of products that allow uses to meet remotely. Offered by LogMeIn, GoToWebinar is designed for large events and public gatherings. The GoToMeeting solution is really best suited for small, highly interactive meetings that you would typically hold around a table.
GoToWebinar is really the best option from LogMeIn when it comes to public meetings that we're trying to accommodate during a public health emergency. GoToWebinar is an attractive solution because it offers registration so you can follow-up with meeting attendees if necessary, use of webcams so that the members of the public board can be seen as co-presenters to the audience — but limited to six webcams at a time live. GoToWebinar has the ability to accommodate up to 1,000 attendees at once, which is likely more than suitable for a typical public meeting. It requires no downloads to join; people can attend directly through a web browser.
Those interested in GoToWebinar should consider subscribing to the Pro package at a minimum. It will allow for up to 500 participants (to make the even available to 1,000 requires the Plus package). It is the lowest priced option that includes recording and transcripts. On a monthly basis, GoToWebinar will cost $249 per month with discounts for an annual subscription.
Webex by Cisco is a well-known distance meeting solution. However, Webex's strength is in supporting smaller meetings that would occur among teams in the workplace. The service does scale up to 200 attendees but requires a purchase of at least five Business licenses per month. The Plus package can be purchased as a single license, but you are limited to 100 attendees, and for a small community it may work out just well. It offers easy to use features and its plans provide for unlimited meetings. As for cost, it comes in as the lowest cost among the three options examined here.
Webex also offers a platform called Webex Events for larger meetings, but it's not available online and does require you to contact their sales team. This is often a sign that you're getting into an expensive option that may be too much for your needs.
If you select Webex, you will want to select the Plus package. It will allow you to host up to 100 participants. You will have access to recording transcripts, which is helpful in New York or other states that require a transcript. You will also have 5 GB of storage for your recordings. The cost for the Webex Plus package is $19.95 per month per host billed monthly. There are discounts available for annual subscriptions.
Zoom is the newest option among these platforms. Many large companies use Zoom and it's often been cited as a favorite for tech companies. Zoom is a great solution for large meetings as it allows for the largest number of interactive video participants, up to 100 if necessary!
If you want to extend the reach of your meeting, you can also stream your meeting to other services including Facebook and YouTube. Zoom is also very reliable and users don't typically report significant delays or disruptions. Zoom provides for cloud storage at 1GB but not transcription, unless you are upgrading to the Business package which requires the purchase of at least 10 licenses per month.
If 1GB isn't enough space, Zoom will sell you additional storage starting at 100 GB for $40 per month.
Should you choose Zoom, you'll want to consider the Pro package and upgrade to the video webinar add-on if you expect to accommodate more than 100 people at a time. The cost for the Pro package with the video webinar add on is $154.99 per month per host.
For smaller communities, Webex is likely your best option. It has a great balance between cost and features. But with its limit of 100 participants, if you expect a large turnout, this may not be enough and you may turn people away. You can stream your meeting, but it is limited to Facebook. To extend your reach to other platforms like YouTube, you will need a third-party app that integrates with Webex and the other streaming platform.
For larger communities and meetings, Zoom with the video webinar add-on is my recommended solution. Zoom offers scalability and ease of use over the other platforms. The cost is well balanced and in a community that needs to accommodate multiple boards, the cost can be distributed. For example, a small community that will not need to accommodate more than 100 participants can get by without the video webinar add-on which reduces the cost to $14.99 per month per host. If you have a YouTube of Facebook presence, you can further expand the view-only reach of your meetings by using the streaming function.
Keep in mind, you will need a camera and microphone in all of these options. Most laptop computers and smartphones will have this feature installed. But if you are using a desktop computer, you may need to add a webcam and speakers or a webcam and headphones. The Logitech C525, C920s, C930e, or Brio are great options depending on how much you are willing to invest.
Aichinger, A. 2009. Open Meeting Laws and Freedom of Speech. Retrieved from The First Amendment Encyclopedia.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2020, March 12. Get Your Mass Gatherings or Large Community Events Ready. Retrieved from Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).
Cuomo, A. M. 2020, March 13. No. 202.1: Continuing Temporary Suspension and Modification of Laws Relating to the Disaster Emergency. Retrieved from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
Top image: A traditional face-to-face planning commission meeting in Campbell, California. Wikimedia Commons photo (CC BY-SA 4.0).