Looking Ahead: Holding “Hybrid” Public Meetings
The COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging to local governments on many levels, including a pivot to holding remote meetings for health and safety reasons. With Washington counties shifting to different COVID-19 phases to open up, some local governments are starting to consider whether to transition back to in-person public meetings. While virtual meetings have been helpful in keeping local government employees and residents safe during the pandemic, technological and communication issues have been challenging to overcome. In-person public meetings can be easier to facilitate but have their own challenges with engagement and accessibility.
Combining remote and in-person attendance into a “hybrid public meeting” option may be a good approach for your jurisdiction to consider, and this blog will provide an overview of the model, including how some Washington cities are approaching the topic.
Benefits of the Hybrid Public Meeting Model
This hybrid model has many benefits for communities and the public. Several local governments have noted increased attendance at public meetings since switching over to a virtual option due to pandemic restrictions. Online meeting platforms allow people to access and participate in meetings from their home or workplace, but it also limits access to those attendees who have the requisite technology needed to attend a virtual meeting.
In-person meetings may also limit the people who can participate because it requires attendees to appear at a designated place during a specific time. Providing both virtual and in-person meeting options, e.g., the hybrid public meeting model, would appear to improve equitable access to local government. An individual who cannot attend a public meeting in person due to a disability, work, or other commitment can chose the virtual option while anyone who does not have the technological capability to participate online can opt for in-person attendance.
What Are Washington Local Governments Doing?
MRSC conducted a survey of Washington city clerks to understand how local governments are accommodating public meetings currently and whether they plan to transition to a hybrid model once the pandemic recedes. From the 80+ cities that responded to the survey, 32 jurisdictions said that they are planning on conducting hybrid public meetings in the future, 11 said that they would be returning to the in-person (only) public meeting format, and 35 said that they were unsure (see the graph below).
A major reason for those local governments that plan to use the hybrid model in the future was voiced by Sue Ann Spens, Hunts Point City Clerk, who said, “We would like the option to continue hybrid meetings at a minimum to accommodate those who may be wary of attending in-person.”
Challenges of the Hybrid Model
Regardless of whether an agency will be using the hybrid approach or just returning to in-person meetings, many local governments indicated via the survey that they would be addressing public safety/health concerns prior to allowing people to attend in-person meetings. These steps include requiring masks, social distancing, limiting capacity, and providing hand sanitzer for those individuals who attend in person. Some cities also said they were considering temperature checks for staff and elected officials and having an overflow room to accommodate additional members of the public once capacity is reached in the main meeting location.
In the MRSC survey, cities were asked how they will be handling interactions with in-person and virtual attendees. This could include allowing for both in-person and virtual public comments in a meeting or having staff read comments aloud for virtual attendees. A wide variety of solutions are currently being utilized or are under consideration. Here is a sampling of the comments from survey respondents:
- Ritzville: “We are utilizing a camera to show the in-person council meeting. Due to limited broadband capacity, we are also using the phone so everyone can hear each other whether in person or over the phone. If the Wi-Fi goes down, then we at least still [have a] connection through the phone." Julie Flyckt, City Clerk
- Enumclaw: “[We have t]wo large television monitors in Council Chambers that can be seen by attendees and also to livestream/tv audience. [The meeting host will] use ‘pin' feature to keep Councilmembers on the screen, and only add public and staff members to the large screen when they are speaking.” Maureen Burwell, City Clerk
- Moses Lake: “[R]emote attendees are audio only, except an occasional remote presentation.” Debbie Burke, City Clerk
Lack of technological capabilities was a primary concern of cities looking to go hybrid for their public meetings.
A number of cities expressed that a lack of adequate finances or insufficient staffing levels were barriers to conducting hybrid public meetings.
- Ilwaco: “Our small city only has 2 FTE administrative employees who assist [the] mayor and council. It would be very difficult to monitor a public meeting while ensuring safety guidelines in person, as well as conducting a hybrid meeting with limited resources.” Holly Beller, Treasurer
- Prescott: “The City would like to update City Hall to have…[a] television monitor and laptop to conduct meetings in our conference room; finances are not allowing the City to update at this time.” Linda Vannoster, Clerk-Treasurer
- Duvall: “Duvall is in research mode for technology that can accommodate [the] hybrid model. Facility and technology needs are our biggest hurdles.” Jodi Wycoff, City Clerk
Many communities are still conducting completely virtual meetings, but as we prepare to go back to more in-person activities, now may be the time to ask your community what works for them. Taking inventory of what resources you have to accommodate different meeting platforms may result in more meaningful engagement and more opportunities for community members to participate in your local government’s activities.
For More Information
Here are some upcoming webinars that readers of this blog might find interesting:
Our The Post-Pandemic Workplace, Part 1: Policies and Practices for the Post-COVID Office on Thursday, May 20, from 10 AM - 11:30 AM, will look at how cities and counties from across the state are rethinking operational practices. In a companion webinar, AWC is covering the changing legal landscape for public sector employers — from collective bargaining agreements to employee handbooks.
Planners, plans examiners, building officials, and others involved in the development review process should consider registering for our Making the Switch to Paperless Permitting webinar on Tuesday, June 1, from 12 PM - 1:30 PM. Featuring a panel of local experts, this webinar will answer your questions related to transitioning to digital permitting.
The author would like to thank MRSC’s Steve Butler for his assistance with this blog post.
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.