Municipalities brave Zoom learning curve in pandemic times
Weeks before the pandemic devastated the US, Somerville officials were already considering using Zoom as a way to give residents more access to community meetings by allowing them to participate remotely. As Denise Taylor, the city’s director of communications and community engagement explained, her team had no idea at the time that their virtual plans would soon be thrust into action, as COVID-19 swept this region and others, forcing cities and towns to shut down public buildings, therefore prohibiting people from attending meetings in person. It was chaos, but Taylor said that Somerville was relatively prepared in this regard.
“We were actually already looking at Zoom, but hadn’t done it yet and so we didn’t know what the result would be,” the communications director said. “What’s been interesting is that we’ve had very large turnout for the town halls, and an increase in the diversity of participants.”
Taylor continues: “For example, we held a meeting for multilingual families within the schools, and a lot of people turned out that wouldn’t have been able to attend because of family obligations or other transportation constraints. There were people on that call who were cooking dinner, folding laundry, etcetera, while being able to participate, [and] they might not have been there otherwise.”
Over in Cambridge, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said that she has seen increased participation from community members who don’t usually attend meetings. Like Taylor, Siddiqui noted that the issues being discussed have fueled the increased turnout, as residents have tuned in to speak about the pandemic and police brutality in particular. In one case, homeless individuals Zoomed in to public forums to voice their thoughts and concerns over shelters in the city.
“You see newer voices, you see more people joining in,” Siddiqui said. “I think it’s easy for folks to be at home to call in and tell us what they think. That’s been a new thing.”
At one meeting following the killing of George Floyd by a white cop in Minneapolis, approximately 400 people signed up to speak during a public forum, many calling for the Cambridge Police Department to be defunded. The sheer size of the virtual crowd spurred Siddiqui to cut the amount of time for each speaker from three minutes to one, and to devote the whole duration of the meeting to public comment.
“I was struck by how many people did call in,” the mayor said. “I’m not sure when we’ll have that amount of public comment again.”
In early April, as cities like Somerville and Cambridge were learning on the fly, Zoom reported that more than 90,000 schools in 20 countries were suddenly using the technology for online classes, while more than 200 million daily meetings were occurring on the platform. In many ways, these institutions were in the same boat—dealing with everything from scheduling to unwelcome guests. At the same time, they were on their own in their attempts to be legally compliant and transparent in the face of challenges both unforeseen and unimaginable.
While Somerville had been looking ahead to the possibility of allowing residents to participate in community meetings remotely, for Cambridge, the shift was more sudden. On March 12, officials there announced that public meetings would no longer be physically accessible to the public, and that people would have to participate remotely.
“Given the current public health crisis, these operational adjustments are necessary to protect the general public and to be able to transact necessary business for the time being,” Siddiqui said in a statement. “We appreciate the public’s patience as we navigate through this together.”
The changes were supposed to be temporary and were initially put in effect from March 13 through April 30, city officials noted in a press release. Yet all these months later, Cambridge and communities across the Commonwealth continue to limit participation to digital as a precaution. As Massachusetts reports daunting death and hospitalization numbers moving into the cold months, which are predicted to be even worse, you can count on remote meeting trends continuing at least through early 2021.
Making these machinations possible in the first place, on March 12, Gov. Charlie Baker signed an executive order suspending certain provisions of the state’s open meeting law, thus allowing cities and towns to implement measures that restrict physical access to meetings. The new measures required municipalities to provide “adequate, alternative means of public access to the deliberations of the public body,” such as telephone, internet, or satellite-enabled audio or video conferencing.
While the changes have been dramatic, they haven’t led to an increase in violations of open meeting laws, according to Attorney General Maura Healey’s office. In the first five months of the pandemic, there were about 100 complaints filed, which is comparable to what Healey’s office would typically receive during that time period.
Still, there have been countless hiccups. In Everett, for example, Gerly Adrien, the city’s first-ever Black woman to serve on the City Council, drew ire from fellow members for participating virtually while the rest of her colleagues attended meetings in person. Only after a massive show of support from constituents and other elected officials from around the state did Everett make it clear that the city will use Zoom as a default moving forward.
Some platforms are good for some things, while others help with other tasks.
In Somerville, Taylor said her office booked Zoom for community meetings, which include town halls, while other city officials chose to use GoToMeeting for City Council, commissions, boards, and other official business.
Whatever the medium, as any journalist who has ever been one of the few stragglers in a public meeting will attest, Somerville’s virtual metrics are impressive. In one example, more than 270 people logged on for the first school reopening town hall in English, while an average of about 100 to 120 people have virtually attended COVID emergency response updates. Business and workforce town halls, meanwhile, have attracted about 30 people on average.
In Cambridge, Assistant City Manager David Kale said using Zoom allows city staff to control video and audio. “We worked hard to find the right technology,” he said. “The training has been key … because we just don’t let a meeting happen unless there’s a training component so that people who are using it understand how to use the technology.”
The city’s Chief Information Officer Patrick McCormick stepped into his position as the pandemic was taking hold, and said that officials aimed for the transition to be seamless. “Our goal was to really make the meetings and the access to the public as similar as possible to the way it’s been.”
That hasn’t always been easy, especially at the beginning of this grand experiment. The initial problem, as you may have encountered yourself, came in the form of “Zoom bombings,” or at least the threat of having uninvited trolls show up in a box on the screen. In Cambridge, the issue manifested in porn popping up unexpectedly (oral sex, if you must know). As McCormick explained months later, “We didn’t have Zoom webinar in place. I think most places didn’t,” adding that the company has “upgraded their product” in the time since.
Cambridge, of course, was not alone in getting interrupted. Everyone from AA members to Sunday school attendees have been blitzed, with the FBI’s Boston office even putting out a warning to users back in March about virtual meetings being hijacked. In a post on the company’s site, Zoom founder and CEO Eric S. Yuan wrote that he was “deeply sorry”: “We absolutely condemn these types of attacks and deeply feel for anyone whose meeting has been interrupted in this way.”
Cambridge City Clerk Anthony Wilson said that Council meetings are a “guinea pig” for figuring out how to make new procedures work. Even though, unlike in other places, Cambridge was already broadcasting most meetings online and making playbacks available through a web portal. The city also had established a way for people to sign up to comment at council meetings online before COVID-19, Wilson noted.
While IT heads that are typically calm under pressure were “scrambling in the beginning” of the pandemic, Wilson said that meetings are mostly running smoothly now, largely because of the infrastructure already in place to manage participants. “Not to take anything away from Zoom, but I think it’s worked well because of the public comment system that the city created internally,” he said. “That allows us to track the speakers. We know when the person’s time is up, we know if they’ve already spoken, and we can go back to people if they’ve had some sort of technical issue.”
While some of the technological advantages outweigh the negatives—namely, the occasional hot-and-heavy shower scene appearing in mid-meeting, however rare that has become—there are also longer-term considerations. McCormick said that while the software and their implementation of it has “evolved very quickly,” that doesn’t mean Zoom is a cure-all.
“It doesn’t replace … the community connection that happens in person,” Taylor, the Somerville communications director said. “No matter how many people get to speak, or pose a question in an online meeting, they’re still not there in the room together and able to converse beforehand or afterward with neighbors, or followup individually with a city or school representative with a question they maybe didn’t want to voice in a larger forum as easily.”
Nevertheless, Taylor added, “I think it will absolutely change how we run meetings in the long run.”
In Cambridge, there’s already talk about making some kind of remote participation a permanent feature.
“We’re thinking about that,” Siddiqui said. “There is a discussion.”
This article was produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. If you want to see more reporting like this, please givetobinj.org.
Adam is a freelance reporter in the Greater Boston area. He works the night and weekend desk at the Boston Globe and is a board member of the the New England chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.