Practical Tips for Holding Hybrid Meetings
In the post-pandemic world, businesses are embracing technological tools to improve their operations, and Washington local governments are no exception. One technological advancement that was only minimally used by Washington local governments prior to 2020 — but is now quite common — is offering a remote meeting option to attend meetings of the governing body. Commonly referred to as “hybrid meetings,” these types of meetings offer not just a physical location where the public can attend but also a remote video or audio attendance option.
Over the past year, I have collected practical tips from various local governments on how to hold an effective hybrid meeting. This blog will explore those practical tips.
Let’s first start with the legal requirements for remote meetings under the Open Public Meetings Act so we can establish a baseline for what is required.
Fully remote meetings (with no physical location) can only be held if an emergency has been declared by either the federal government, the state, or a local government, and if the local government determines it cannot hold an in-person meeting due to the emergency. If no emergency has been declared, then the meeting must be held — at least in part — in a physical location.
Local governments can (but are not required to) offer a remote attendance option to join the meeting held at a physical location, and this is referred to as a hybrid meeting. While hybrid meetings often utilize a video communications platform, audio will also suffice — the only legal requirement is that the public can listen to the meeting live at no cost.
Local Rules on Remote Attendance by Members of the Governing Body
State law permits all members of the governing body to attend a hybrid meeting remotely, although some local governments have adopted local rules on members’ remote attendance. Examples of local rules include:
- Stating that in-person attendance is preferred and expected.
- Allowing remote attendance only a certain number of times per month or per year.
- Permitting remote attendance by only two members per meeting.
- Allowing remote attendance only for special circumstances, such as being out of town or being sick.
- Requiring a member\ gain prior permission by the chair to attend remotely.
- Requiring 24-hour notice to the chair, executive, and/or clerk to attend remotely.
Some local governments have adopted additional expectations and requirements for remote meeting participation by members of the governing body, such as:
- Requiring cameras stay on at all times,
- Requiring members mute their microphone when they aren’t speaking and raise their virtual hand in order to be called on to speak,
- Disabling the chat feature (if applicable),
- Requiring satisfactory equipment and a stable internet connection in order for the member to successfully join and participate in the meeting remotely, and
- Stating that, if remote attendance fails for a member, this malfunction or operational failure shall not require meeting adjournment unless the governing body loses a quorum.
Remote Attendance at Executive Sessions
Executive sessions can cause unique problems given the requirement that executive session discussions remain confidential. Some local governments only permit remote attendance for executive sessions on a case-by-case basis and only when the governing body is confident in the security of the remote communications. So called “Zoom bombing” is less of an issue now since many online meeting platforms have added security measures and agencies have become more adept at controlling who can enter the online meeting room.
Concerns with Attendance by Phone Only
If a local government offers a remote attendance option to members of its governing body and/or the public, it can choose to provide telephone access, video access, or both. While phone attendance can be the easiest method to use given the ubiquity of phones, there are problems with phone attendance for both the attendee and for the agency including:
- Inability of a person to “raise their hand” or use non-verbal cues when they want to speak, resulting in overlapping conversations,
- Uncertainty surrounding who is talking,
- No ability for the agency to mute disruptive meeting participants,
- Delays and pauses in the audio, and
- Poor sound quality from cell phones with bad reception.
Attendance by video also has its share of problems, including poor internet connection that results in dropped connections or glitchy video (the latter which can potentially be remedied by turning the video off and joining via audio only). At least people seem to have sorted out their background filters by now.
Quality of Sound and Video in the Hybrid Meeting Space
Regardless of whether individuals join by phone or video, a common area where agencies struggle is ensuring adequate sound and video. Agencies recognize the importance of remote attendees being able to adequately hear and see those attending in-person (and vice-versa), whether it’s a councilmember on the dais, a staff member presenting a staff report, or a member of the public providing public comment.
Common issues include incompatibility of microphones with 360-degree cameras (e.g., Owl cameras), audio feedback from in-room microphones (unless everyone is muted), and a technology lag between the internet-based platforms and the in-person meeting. Upgrading equipment, investing in new technology, and improving internet connections can help. If technology improvements are not in the budget this year, continued improvements by online meeting platforms will hopefully make these types of concerns moot over time.
Managing Public Expectations and Public Comments in the Hybrid Meeting Space
The meeting chair should commence every hybrid meeting with a meeting preamble that covers matters such as how the meeting will be run and how the public can participate; this will set a baseline for the public’s expectations for the meeting.
With regard to public comment, which is now required at all regular meetings at which final action is taken, agencies have taken different approaches. The law allows for an agency to limit public comments to only written comment or only oral comment, although most accept both.
Agencies can set a reasonable deadline for submission of written comment, and if the agency allows oral comment, it should adopt a clear system for taking that comment, such as calling on in-person attendees to speak first, in the order they signed up, followed by virtual attendees. Some examples of public comment procedures are:
- City of Seattle — Offers specific guidance for remote public comment, including a signup form made available two hours before each meeting.
- City of Shoreline — Requires written comment to be submitted before 4:00 pm on the meeting day.
- City of Spokane Valley — Requires those commenting verbally via Zoom to sign up by 4:00 pm on the meeting day.
Investing in Adequate Staff
Hybrid meetings require additional staff to run smoothly. It’s a tall order to ask one staff member to monitor the online meeting room and public comment, troubleshoot connection or other technological issues, take meeting minutes, and assist with presentation slides. Some agencies divide the work between two staff members where, for example, the clerk will run the online meeting and manage the virtual participation while another staff member manages presentation slides. Also, unless the staff members are particularly adept at technology, having an IT staff member in attendance can lessen the stress on non-IT staff.
Hybrid meetings are now the norm for local governments in Washington State. Implementation of proper procedures for remote and in-person attendance can help these hybrid meetings run smoothly. Investing in high-quality equipment, using solid meeting platforms and software, and having sufficient staff to run hybrid meetings, as well as incorporating some of the practical tips covered in this blog, will go a long way in increasing local government participation, transparency, and efficiency.
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.