During the COVID-19 pandemic the Annapolis City Council has started to host remote public meetings in order to help with continuity of operations and transparency. I commend them for taking the leap off the cliff to do this, especially given that the usual in person meetings are mostly a low tech operation from a council member standpoint – mostly just muting/unmuting the microphone. Any technology involved with streaming those meetings is handled by technical staff. While using Zoom (what Annapolis is using) is not rocket science – and shouldn’t I know, I used to be one? but I digress… – it does require some practice to use to achieve best results (audio and video quality as well as dealing with latency and slow internet connections). There are always bumps in the road when talking on new business processes and no doubt many municipalities are doing the same and wrestling with the same issues. Beyond the basics of running and participating in this kind of meeting, there are issues related to transparency such as the ability to allow public comment. How should it be done remotely?
Public comment is a prominent feature of Annapolis City Council meetings and often can dominate a meeting lasting many hours into the night, the Annapolis cultural Zeitgeist . So continuing to allow the public to comment is critical. There was a lot of discussion about at the April 27 meeting. While they have a web form available (https://www.annapolis.gov/FormCenter/City-Clerk-14/Public-Comment-Web-Form-67) to receive public comments they have not fully flushed out the business process behind it. Currently, the site emails the form contents to some undisclosed number of recipients, I assume the council members and staff, but it is not explicitly stated. Beyond that, there has been talk about comments being posted online somewhere (Legistar?) at some point (when minutes are approved?) but nothing official. There has also been discussion about if and how to allow members of the public to participate in the Zoom meetings. While that goal is admirable, it is fraught with possible issues that transcend just bad audio and video quality.
My suggestion is just to read submitted testimony on the meeting. Sounds like an opportunity for a city staff member or aspiring voice actor from the public to hone his or hers talent. I believe there would be some real benefits to doing it this way at very minimal cost/overhead. So of course I used the form to submit testimony on testimony. This is what I submitted – they want it kept to < 450 words:
Dear Members of the Council-Annapolis City Council, submitted 10:30AM 4/28/2020
Thank you all for continuing to conduct business remotely. While perhaps trying for those who are not technologically inclined, this is very important for continuity of operations and transparency. I want to comment on the process for accepting public input. One of the major problems with only distributing comments in writing as we can do now at any time by emailing council members or through this form, is individual bias plays a role when receiving written input – such and such person always says X so it either goes unread or undigested – and requiring everyone to listen to testimony helps avoid this. We all have this bias and it is hard to ignore.
After listening to the debate during the April 27 meeting about how to handle public testimony, I suggest the following simple solution that meets the intent of allowing “in person” testimony and the requirements of that process, without the technological challenges and possibly unsuitable remote behavior of allowing the public to participate in the zoom meetings. Read the submitted testimony on the zoom meetings using this process:
1. Find a city staff member – surely there has to be an aspiring actor on staff somewhere in the city government that wants to hone his or her craft – who will read the testimony a priori so they won’t stumble as they read it live and they can strike any unsuitable language. There is enough time from the cut off time to the meeting to do this. This will have several benefits – first and foremost, it mimics what would happen under normal circumstances. Second, each council member will not have to manage the emails they get from this form, which according to the comments from the April 27 meeting are confusing.
2. Cut off reading at 3 minutes. This will force comments to be clear and concise. There is too much leeway on this.
3. For the interim, publish the link more widely and make it easy to find.I suggest putting the city council link on their page (https://www.annapolis.gov/483/City-Council) and the Boards and Commission link on each of their pages.
4. Immediately post the written comments on Legistar under the meeting and do not wait until the meeting minutes are published.
Best Regard, Alex Pline
P.S. 388 words 😉