Moving Planning Commission Meetings Online During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Mid-Sized City Perspective
With the COVID-19 outbreak, planners are being challenged to rethink how they work with various shelter-in-place and social distancing guidelines around the country. One particular challenge is how to continue with planning commission and other board meetings to keep communities moving forward. In Fayetteville, Arkansas, with a population of 85,000, the Planning Commission held their first online meeting Monday, March 23, 2020, using the platform Zoom. APA's Roberta Rewers talks with immediate Past Chair of the Fayetteville Planning Commission, Matt Hoffman, about the experience. Matt’s tenure as chair concluded at Monday’s meeting. Matt is director of urban design at MBL Planning, Architecture and Interiors.
Interesting in getting the big-city perspective on moving meetings online? Listen to it here.
[00:00:05.550] Roberta Rewers: Welcome to the American Planning Association podcast. I'm Roberta Rewers, communications manager. We hope everyone is doing as well as possible during these uncertain times. With COVID-19, planners are being challenged to rethink how they work with various shelter-in-place and social distancing guidelines around the country. One particular challenge is how to continue with planning commission and other board meetings to keep communities moving forward. In Fayetteville, Arkansas, with a population of 85,000, the Planning Commission held their first online meeting just last Monday using the platform Zoom. Joining us by phone is immediate Past Chair of the Fayetteville Planning Commission, Matt Hoffman. Matt's tenure as chair concluded at Monday's meeting. Matt is also the director of urban design at MBL Planning, Architecture and Interiors. Thanks for joining us, Matt.
[00:00:59.030] Matt Hoffman: Yeah. Thanks for having me.
[00:01:00.960] RR: We're really interested — a lot of our members have been grappling with how do we move meetings quickly and make sure we maintain that public engagement aspect, so we appreciate you sharing your experience a little bit. Can you talk a little bit about what conditions went into the decision to move to an online meeting format?
[00:01:19.380] MH: Sure. Yeah. I think there's a recognition that the development community is going to experience a lot of headwinds in the coming months. So it's very important to me and I think Mayor Jordan that the city do its part to keep the wheels of government turning and contribute as much as possible to a kind of normal environment for people to continue working in.
[00:01:36.720] RR: Perfect. And how long did it take between making the decision to move online to getting your setup all done and getting your communications ready to go? Can you talk us a little bit through that timeline?
[00:01:48.030] MH: Yeah. Yeah. I think like so many other things for everyone who's been trying to work in this kind of environment, it moved really quickly. I actually wrote the mayor an email on Monday, the 16th, which was about a week before our, our meeting was scheduled, and just kind of expressed my opinion that I felt like it was actually — absolutely essential for, for the economic well-being of our community to try to work out a solution to safely continue commissionʼs business. The mayor, of course, agreed and was able to quickly marshal the city's technical resources, including media and IT services, to begin solving the problem. We had our first kind of dry run a few days later on Thursday in place of what would have been our normal agenda session. At that point, we kind of figured out that we still had quite a bit to work out, and we decided to do a full dry run with all of the commissioners, the applicants, and city staff day of around noon. So we normally hold our planning commissions around 5:30, and so that day around noon, we had everybody join the meeting to just see what we were going to learn. And of course, had all kinds of audio problems and feedback during that time that we were able to sort out. So certainly any, anyone that's considering going this direction, I highly recommend doing one or two dry runs just, just to make sure you work through everything and try to make it as much like the, the actual meeting as possible. We even had random city staff members from other departments calling in and acting like members of the public just to [laughs] just to make sure that we had everything worked out.
[00:03:31.590] RR: Can you talk a little bit about the setup for the meeting? And you mentioned you had, in your mock trial, city staffers calling in, but so the community members were able to participate as well.
[00:03:42.540] MH: Yeah. Yes, absolutely. It was really important to me and I think the rest of the commission that we maintain our standard rules of order in this context. You know, looking around the Internet, there's no shortage of horror stories about virtual public meetings and call-in shows that have gone badly wrong because not enough care was taken to maintain control over the process. So the last thing we wanted was, was a free-for-all. So we took several steps to make sure that I would be able to maintain control over the meeting. The first and the one that I think everybody needs to strongly consider is, is if you're using Zoom or similar platform, make sure that the chair or whoever is, is sort of emceeing the meeting has tight control over screen sharing and microphone access. So the way that we did it, I was actually able to, from my, from my position in city hall, turn people's mics on and off and control on a, on a kind of case-by-case basis, individuals who could share their screens. So, so if we had a city staff member back in the, in the development service offices who needed to do a presentation for a zoning request, you know, I could sort of turn their, their permissions on to let just that person share their screen. Same thing with, with commissioners. You know, I had control over, over all of their microphones, which allowed us to really run a pretty normal meeting, so, so if you've watched any of — any City of Fayetteville Planning Commission meeting in the past, you know, we kind of do the, the typical Robert's Rules of Order thing. And we were basically able through the, the virtual platform to, to run the meeting and in a very similar manner. And in terms of the public, they had several options for, for being able to join the meeting. Of course, they could join the Zoom meeting electronically through, through the Internet, which we did our best to put that link out. They could also do it from their iPhone. And they also have an opportunity to just use a normal telephone. And in fact, at some point in the meeting, I sort of started to feel like a, like a kind of radio call-in show DJ, with how much I was repeating the call-in number for, for people to participate, which was an odd feeling that I'm not, not used to. But, you know, it was, it was definitely a strange way to, to end my, my two years as chair, my full term as chair, so.
[00:06:19.200] RR: Definitely. How did you get the word out to the community? Because this is the first time the commission has done this. So how did you kind of make sure you got the news out to them, what kind of — did you go above and beyond? Extra effort in trying to make sure the community was included? Because I know you had mentioned you have really good participation usually.
[00:06:39.530] MH: Yeah, absolutely. Fayetteville is sort of famous — famously in this area a community that really prizes public participation in our public meetings. You know, we're, we're a college community, so we have a lot of students who get involved. We have a lot of people from the university who get involved. And just the public in general here is — never been afraid to let their opinion be known. So we wanted to do the best that we could in that process. So before the meeting and of course, I wasn't, I was more involved in the technical side of trying to make sure that, that we had our ducks in a row just to, just to physically accomplish the meeting, but I know our communications team did a great job trying to get the word out on — and [do] press and social media. Of course, you know, the — City Hall is closed right now, so really the only way to, to join the meeting was by Internet or on the telephone. So we're still working through that. It's something that's, that's in flux. But I know the city, for example, right now, the city staff is working on a kind of landing page on the city's website that will have all the information about the city's various public meetings in virtual format. So, for example, if you're someone who's interested in the city council's transportation committee, there'll be a unique link on that page that will bring you to that meeting or a city council meeting or an active transportation advisory committee meeting or a planning commission meeting. We're trying to kind of build a place where all of that'll be in one place, and everybody can go to that one place and find all that information that they need.
[00:08:17.200] RR: Did you get any feedback from the community members in general about acc— you know, if they didn't have Internet access, you mentioned telephone, any kind of general feedback from community members so far on this approach?
[00:08:31.900] MH: I think it's still so new right now that, you know, we haven't, we haven't gotten a whole lot of feedback just from the community standpoint. We are working, just as a city, though, we're working towards trying to find more ways to connect with people. You know, City, City Hall being closed does present that challenge. But, but, for example, we're looking at potentially opening up a kind of technical support hotline during some of the larger meetings where people would be able to call in and get advice from city IT staff on, you know, if they're having technical issues with connecting. Obviously, there's some staffing issues with that that we're working through, and hopefully we'll be able to get something going there.
[00:09:16.780] RR: I know one of the concerns we've heard from a lot of members talking about is any potential legal appeals that might come for decisions made while commission meetings or other regulatory meetings are done online. Has the city or the planning commission thought about that and processes for that going forward?
[00:09:34.870] MH: Absolutely. Obviously, this was a hot topic of conversation in the days leading up to our first meeting. You know, just, just from a prop — process perspective, we felt like the best thing we could do in light of these circumstances is to continue moving forward normally. You know, and this does bring up some questions, you know, in particular the, you know, issues resulting from the decreased ability of the public to participate and public input. You know, we, we felt that sort of the worst-case scenario we could envision would be having to rehear an item, which, given the liabilities associated with not moving forward, was, was sort of an acceptable risk. I think one thing that, that doesn't get enough conversation when, when people talk about these issues is, is the legal risks associated with not moving forward. So Arkansas — of course, every state is different — but Arkansas has some pretty specific laws that govern, you know, different types of items, large-scale developments, preliminary plats, those sorts of things. And when is it, is it — when is it appropriate for a city to either deny those items or delay those items? We have a very limited number of circumstances in which we could delay an item that meets all of our development criteria or denied outright. So, you know, we felt like, again, from a legal perspective, the best thing that we could do to protect the city was to try to move forward in as normal a way as possible.
[00:11:18.100] RR: Well, and I think too, maybe, perhaps with these uncertain times, it gives people a little sense of normalcy that life is still moving forward when we're not sure what's going on.
[00:11:27.580] MH: Absolutely. You know, I heard in the week or two meeting — leading up to the meeting, I heard from several development professionals who, who were concerned about the possibility that the city might delay these sorts of meetings, delay the entitlement process. You know, for someone for, for a small developer who, who's got his whole life invested in a small project in Fayetteville and understandably is concerned about the economic climate moving forward, I think, you know, the ability of the city to do everything possible to maintain normalcy for that individual is really critical.
[00:12:08.080] RR: What would you say would be a positive, unexpected outcome from having the commission meeting online?
[00:12:13.900] MH: You know, something, something we didn't expect at all is how much, how much support and questions and congratulations we've received from, from across the country. I spoke to one of our planning manager— managers this morning who told me about how — excuse me — who told me about conversations he's already had with, with people as far as the Bay Area and just across the country looking for advice and, and just generally using the City of Fayetteville as a resource for how other communities can can work through these issues. So, so as a city, I think we're really proud of that and excited that we have the ability to play a small role in helping other communities work through these problems.
[00:12:58.500] RR: What were some unexpected challenges maybe that came up that you had to address? I know you said you did a couple of different test runs.
[00:13:05.740] MH: Yeah, we did. And, you know, in addition to just figuring out — not, not only are we, are we working through try to — trying to host a Zoom meeting and work through all the permissions that I discussed before, but, you know, we also had to figure out how are we going to broadcast this thing and get it out? You know, the city has for, for decades now put all of our Planning Commission meetings on, on local-access television. So our IT guys and our media service guys did a great job figuring out how to, how to get the audio and the video and all that stuff coordinated to get out so people could actually watch us live and call in live if, if they chose to. And just from a, from a practical standpoint as chair of the meeting, I think one thing I didn't anticipate was the technical demand of kind of directing traffic through the Zoom platform. And, you know, it caused a little bit of difficulty for me just in terms of being able to engage in the substance of the meeting as much as I normally would. And so that was, that was kind of too bad. But overall, I think I think it went pretty well.
[00:14:13.240] RR: Do you think in a post-COVID world that this might become a regular approach for the planning commission?
[00:14:20.440] MH: Definitely not. I mean, short answer, no. I don't think, I mean, anyone who gets involved in this, I think there's a lot of upside in terms of the ability to get us through a difficult situation, but in no sense is this ideal. You know, I mentioned our, our community is, is very active in engagement, and we want to get back as quickly as we can to safely meeting people face to face. One aspect, though, that we may incorporate in the future and of course, none of us really had time to talk through this. But, you know, sometimes elected officials and appointed officials like, like us are, you know, have a situation where we can't make it to a meeting for whatever reason, either an illness or a logistical issue with someone being out of town. So in years past, we've, we've always just kind of had a hard rule that, you know, you have to be at City Hall if you're going to be in the meeting. But it's possible that some of this technology and our, our comfort with us — comfort with this technology could allow us to incorporate, you know, commissioners from out of town or if they're out or, or sick or whatever, just, just to make sure that we fill out the ranks completely.
[00:15:36.100] RR: Perfect. Anything else you'd like to offer to communities that are trying to figure out how to keep business moving while we're dealing with this?
[00:15:45.820] MH: You know, this is a, this is a, an evolving process for us. So, you know, in the, in the near future, I think we're looking to move towards a purely virtual meeting setup where nobody has to be at City Hall. I think we're getting close to that. I mentioned the landing page and the website that we're working on to give folks kind of a one-stop shop for, for engaging in all these meetings. You know, and even simple things, like when the meeting is, is online or on TV, what does the screen look like and can we, you know, can we provide a clear template or a background that shows people how they can, how they can get involved, you know, be it a phone number or a link that they can see on, on TV? So you know, we're definitely trying to improve this. I don't — I don't know that our, that our tenth virtual public meeting will look anything like our first one did. But, you know, small improvements, incremental improvements over time, we're hoping that we can continue to streamline this process and hopefully come up with something that everybody continues to feel good about.
[00:17:00.210] RR: Absolutely. Well, I think it's remarkable you guys were able to move that quickly and make your commission meeting happen. And we appreciate you taking the time to speak with us and kind of share your experience with the rest of APA members as well.
[00:17:13.160] MH: Absolutely. It was granted to speak with you and we appreciate it.