COVID-19 and Public Meetings

Due to the COVID-19 health emergency, communities around the state are faced with the challenge of holding remote public meetings. In order to help planners and staff from around the state navigate this daunting task, APA-Wisconsin has created this webpage with information about available technologies and tips for holding productive public meetings from afar. Feel free to email webmaster Nancy Frank (frankn@uwm.edu) with further questions or additional suggestions.

This page will continue to be updated with new information


EXISTING RESOURCES

  • The League of Wisconsin Municipalities have created their own webpage on complying with the Open Meetings Law during the COVID-19 health emergency. It is incredible useful and has links to a Dane County Remote Meeting Toolkit and guidance from the Wisconsin Department of Justice.
  • The North Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission has assembled a mammoth webpage: COVID-19 Resources for Small Businesses & Local Governments. In an effort to help small businesses and local governments navigate through the COVID-19 Health Emergency, NCWRPC has been sending out updates on available resources for small businesses. Their web page includes: 
       - Funding Opportunities such as grant and loan opportunities;
       - Organizations that can provide assistance to small businesses.
       - Resources for Local Governments; and
       - Other Information, which includes State COVID-19 information and any other relevant information that can be useful for small businesses during this time of need.
  • The Wisconsin Department of Justice has an "Open Government Resource during COVID-19" webpage
  • Sean Maguire, AICP from the New York APA Chapter wrote a fantastic article: Online Alternatives to In-Person Public Meetings in an Emergency. In it, he breaks down the advantages and disadvantages of three techonologies: Webex, GoToWebinar, and Zoom. 
  • There are numerous resources available through the American Planning Association
       - Online Public Engagement Resource Collection webpage
       - On APA Engage's Open Forum there are many active conversations on various topics relating to what we're experiencing. They include everything from electronic plan review, Covid recovery, mentoring students during this time, etc [note: you will need to be logged in].
       - Information Clearinghouses for COVID-19

AVAILABLE TECHNOLOGIES

There are numerous available platforms for holding remote meetings. Some of the free versions of services have limits on the number of participants, the length of meetings, or both. Some of the most popular are listed below:

  • Zoom - Zoom offers video, audio and screen sharing, as well as group messaging, on all sorts of devices. There is a free service available, but many features are limited, and meetings can only last 40 minutes. Zoom provides both a “meeting” and “webinar” service. Meetings are more collaborative - all participants being able to screen share, turn on their video and audio, and see who else is in attendance. Webinars are designed so that the host and any designated panelists can share their video, audio and screen. Webinars allow view-only attendees who can interact via Q&A and chat but enter the call muted unless unmuted by the host. As with many other services, Zoom provides a phone number that people can use to call into the meeting. Depending on whether the person who calls in via phone is a “panelist” or “attendee” the person on the phone may be able to speak. Zoom also has a “waiting room” feature that is unique. NOTE: Some reports have emerged of security issues related to Zoom. There have been numerous reports from around state of Zoom meetings being "Zoom bombed" where external trolls will invade the meeting and disrupt it. Zoom has become the most popular of these technologies, but we think it is worth mentioning. 
  • GoToMeeting/GoToWebinar (GTM) - GTM shares many of the same features as Zoom, with features differing between their “meeting” and “webinar” services. GTM, like Zoom, allows for easy recording of meetings, with the video emailed to the host shortly after the meeting ends. 
  • Microsoft Teams - Teams  is a part of the Microsoft Office Suite and stands out by integrating with other Microsoft Products. Microsoft made their service free due to COVID-19. 
  • Google Hangouts Meet - Good for quick, smaller meetings and group chats. 
  • FreeConference - A completely free service that lacks a few of the more robust features of other services but is good for small video meetings. 
  • Skype - The video-chat stalwart offers similar business and group meeting services as Zoom and GTM. 
  • Webex by Cisco - Great for smaller, workplace-type meetings. 


PUBLIC COMMENTS/PUBLIC HEARINGS

The greatest challenge planners will face is hosting a meeting which allows the public to participate in a meaningful way, especially during statutorily required public hearings. There are few different issues to consider. What direction you chose to take may rely on your software, capacity, and needs:

  • To comply with Open Meeting law, your meeting needs to include a call-in number. The guidance from the WI DOJ also notes: “Facilitate reasonable access for people who cannot attend remotely.” 
  • All of the technologies listed above allow for participation by the general public. Typically, a link and meeting ID number is provided that can be disseminated online or in public hearing notices. Users usually do not have to have an account on the service or even the application  downloaded. It is possible to watch and listen through the link in most web browsers. 
  • The services listed above generally allow public users to access the audio via a call-in number.  The phone-in option is especially helpful to public users who do not have a microphone (or even speakers) on their computer.  Some of the free services may not provide this option. Instructions to the public probably needs to explain these connection options.
  • The technologies above also all have a chat function. In this box, participants and attendees can leave questions or comments in the form of a text message. The meeting hosts must be diligent in monitoring this chat box during the meeting. 
  • There is also a “raise your hand” feature in most available video conferencing technologies. Attendees can use this when they are muted by the host but wish to speak on the subject. Once again, the host must be diligently watching to see when someone has “raised their hand.”
  • Features differ significantly between the “meeting” and “webinar” services. If your meeting is on the smaller side and you don’t expect much public participation, holding a “meeting” may be simpler so long as the host is willing to mute and unmute attendees before and after any public comment session. Webinars are better when you expect attendance to be higher and want to exercise more control over the event. In both, it is important before the meeting to establish and designate “moderators,” “presenters,” “panelists,” and “attendees”. Each designation gives different privileges and abilities related to self-muting, self-unmuting, and controlling any visual presentation.
  • One major issue to consider is that in “webinars” it is difficult, if not impossible for people who listen over the phone to speak on a topic. As such, many communities are urging people who want to make a comment to either submit an email/letter beforehand or watch via the computer as an attendee and “raise your hand” during the public comment session. For example, there doesn’t appear to be a good way to “raise a hand” or speak over the phone as an attendee on a GoToWebinar. 
  • Many communities already livestream their meetings and can use that existing platform to complement their new method of public participation. Livestreams on YouTube and Facebook both allow for live comments. Hosts should monitor these and any public email inbox during the meeting to make sure that any and all comments are heard and included in the record. 
  • Some rare communities still allow for residents to attend a “meeting” in person where the meeting is held or livestreamed at a physically location such as a City Hall. Municipalities must be careful to practice appropriate physical distancing, record attendance, and limit any single room to no more than 10 people at one time. 

GENERAL MEETING TIPS

As with any new technology there are bound to be growing pains. Below is a list of tips for hosting productive and smooth meetings:

  • Test, test, test. – Before hosting any public meeting, make sure to do multiple test runs to ensure that commissioners and panelists are comfortable with the technology and can get their microphones and/or cameras working properly. Test on multiple “brands” of browsers and on older versions of browsers if you can.
  • Offer a short video online to walk people through the process on connecting to your public meeting, including both the “connect on your browser” and “download the app” options.
  • Muting while silent – In larger meetings, it is good etiquette to mute yourself when not talking so that there isn’t too much ambient or background noise that creates a sense of chaos or drowns out other attendees. When each participant mutes and unmutes themselves, it can make meetings much more manageable. Some of the services allow the moderator to mute all participants with a single click. 
  • Identifying speakers – Hosts should encourage all speakers and commissioners to identify themselves before they begin speaking.
  • Ask participants who seek the floor to comment or ask a question to send a chat message within the app indicating that they wish to speak.  The moderator can recognize each participant in turn.  Be sure to explain how to send a chat message in the app. 
  • Recognizing call-in participants is more challenging. If only a few people use the call-in option, a specific time can be set aside to recognize the call-in participants, calling upon them by the last four digits of their phone number. This will require additional time during the meeting—as will reminding people to unmute themselves. Alternatively, participants with a smart phone can send a text to a pre-announced cell number to be added to the queue of people who wish to speak. 
  • All of these ways of recognizing and connecting people will use up time during the meeting.  Be realistic about the number of agenda items that can be managed and the length of meeting that may be needed.
  • Enter meetings early – Make sure to try to enter the meeting five to ten minutes before it starts. This both lets you figure out any problems with your technology and typically the meeting room will load faster as there is always a rush of people joining meetings on the hour and half-hours.
  • Take it slow – When executing public meeting via teleconference software, make sure to urge the panelists and commissioners to take their time when carrying out any motions, votes, or public hearing sessions. That being said, you can establish rules about the length of any individual public comment and don’t be afraid to hold your attendees to it.
  • Test both the “meeting” and “webinar” services to see which feature works best for your needs.
  • The answer to most of your questions can be found on Google or in the FAQ portion of the website. Don’t hesitate to reach out to the customer service team of your chosen service.