Pandemic changes public meetings for good

March 19, 2021 Brookhaven - Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst shows chairs those have not been used since all meetings went virtual because of the pandemic in the meeting room at Brookhaven City Hall building in Brookhaven on Friday, March 19, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
March 19, 2021 Brookhaven - Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst shows chairs those have not been used since all meetings went virtual because of the pandemic in the meeting room at Brookhaven City Hall building in Brookhaven on Friday, March 19, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Video and streaming help city councils reach more citizens

Since coronavirus arrived and changed every aspect of life almost overnight, local governments have had to adjust to keep citizens in the loop.

City leaders enacted policies that affected everyone’s day-to-day lives throughout the pandemic, and those decisions were all made at public meetings. Those meetings — a crucial place where residents can confront and provide feedback to their elected officials — were also changed significantly as the result of the pandemic, moving to virtual platforms.

Unlike mask mandates and other temporary laws to prevent the spread of COVID-19, streamed meetings and virtual participation are going to stick around for years to come in most metro Atlanta cities.

“It provides more transparency in general,” Lawrenceville City Manager Chuck Warbington said. “Folks can tune in and out from their home or watch it from wherever they’re at.”

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Now that every Georgia adult qualifies to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, city leaders are discussing how to meld the convenience of online meetings with a return to in-person gatherings.

Most metro Atlanta cities are likely to continue streaming public meetings. When they first moved online in March 2020, questions were raised on whether the new medium would stifle public comment and lead to less government transparency. However, most cities have reported an uptick in attendees.

Sarah Brewerton-Palmer, an attorney with Caplan Cobb who is on the board of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said most cities have adjusted well to holding meetings virtually or using a hybrid approach, combining virtual and in-person methods.

“I think it really does increase public access,” she said, “and it seems to us that hybrid model is really the best balance of all the different interests.”

‘Shut down immediately’

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst vividly remembers March 13, 2020. At 10:25 p.m., he received a call from Brookhaven’s city manager telling him a city employee had contracted COVID-19.

At the time, there were only 42 confirmed cases in the state. Brookhaven became the first city in the state to close its city hall and was among the first to send non-essential workers home to work virtually and issue a stay-at-home order for its residents.

“There was no doubt in my mind that we had to shut down immediately,” he said.

March 19, 2021 Brookhaven - Portrait of Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst in the meeting room at Brookhaven City Hall building in Brookhaven on Friday, March 19, 2021. The meeting room has not been used since all meetings went virtual because of the pandemic. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
March 19, 2021 Brookhaven - Portrait of Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst in the meeting room at Brookhaven City Hall building in Brookhaven on Friday, March 19, 2021. The meeting room has not been used since all meetings went virtual because of the pandemic. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Dozens of other Georgia cities followed suit within the next week or two, and Gov. Brian Kemp declared a statewide emergency by the end of the month. The lockdown prompted questions on how city leaders could comply with the Open Meetings Act without leaving their homes.

“We don’t know if it’s legal or not legal,” Ernst said of the initial shift to virtual meetings, “but we’ll let someone tell us later. We just believe in the interest of safety, we can’t meet in person.”

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Some cities, such as Roswell, Alpharetta and Johns Creek, streamed their meetings even before the pandemic, which gave them a leg up on making the transition to all-virtual.

Decatur, which has also streamed meetings for years, keeps the videos archived on the city’s website with timestamps for each agenda item. Mayor Patti Garrett said that will continue going forward, but the city is still working out how to balance in-person and virtual meeting aspects.

“Going all virtual is one thing. Going back all in-person is one thing,” she said. “But finding how to do that as a hybrid is going to take some planning and some work.”

New ways to speak up

Lawrenceville, like Brookhaven, began holding meetings over video calls and streaming them to Facebook, allowing the public to comment via email. Warbington said cameras have been added to the council chambers, which have been a “big hit” among the public.

Ernst said hundreds of residents will watch Brookhaven’s meetings now, while only a handful of people used to show up when they were held in-person.

Johns Creek officials started reading aloud public comments that were emailed in. Communications Director Bob Mullen said that will continue.

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“Let’s say a resident is watching online and they see something discussed that they want to comment on. They can email their comment in and we will read it (during the second public comment period of the meeting),” Mullen said.

The Atlanta City Council does not use cameras during meetings and instead relies mostly on audio. The council also adjusted its public comment process, allowing residents to call a number before the meeting and leave a comment. All of them are then played during the meeting. The ease of commenting has encouraged more people than ever to speak on agenda items, causing the public comment period during meetings to sometimes run for hours.

“The most added benefit from the virtual meetings was the fact that we did get to hear from more of the public,” including residents who might not ordinarily be able to go to City Hall to voice their opinion on an issue, City Council President Felicia Moore said.

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Brewerton-Palmer said there were several growing pains during the transition, including early difficulties with technology and protocol. In the worst cases, inadequate microphones made it hard for viewers to hear what was being said. Gradually, most of those issues were resolved, she said.

“Most folks are working in good faith and doing their best,” Brewerton-Palmer said, adding that a bill poised to become law would help clarify some online meeting practices such as when emergency meetings are permitted. House Bill 98, which she said the Georgia First Amendment Foundation supports, has a 97% chance of becoming law, according to the AJC’s Legislative Navigator.

Reopening city halls

Atlanta city leaders have not yet announced when City Hall might reopen for in-person visits, but Moore said she hopes to eventually return to in-person meetings.

”The Council would have to decide as a whole if there are elements of our virtual meetings that they would like to continue,” she said. “Going back would get us back on camera; I think people would like to see us physically instead of just hearing our voices.”

In Decatur, Garrett said she’s waiting for the majority of city employees to get vaccinated before reopening City Hall to the public.

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“Everything keeps saying we’re not there yet,” she said, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice. “We’re getting close, but (we don’t want to) push us in the wrong direction by doing things too quickly.”

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