By Anne Nelson and Jim Lindberg
Elected officials at all levels are struggling with how to conduct the business of government at a time when many state capitols, city halls, and council chambers remain closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since it is unlikely that large public meetings will be allowed in these spaces any time soon, what are the alternatives? How can diverse opinions about important decisions be heard if public meetings are held “virtually” on cell phones and computer screens?
Numerous state and local governments have taken action to address the continuance of government meetings during this emergency situation. Governors have issued executive orders to designate certain government meetings as essential, state legislatures have acted to suspend or relax sunshine or open meeting law requirements, and local governments have adopted ordinances to provide for virtual meetings. These actions typically apply for the duration of the emergency orders, which can be extended.
These emergency changes impact numerous local preservation activities, including landmark nominations, designations, and design review. In addition the changes effect broader community planning efforts that may impact historic resources, such as proposals for zoning changes or requests for demolition permits.
As municipalities, landmark commissions, and preservation advocates continue to adapt to what may be an extended emergency, we offer some general considerations to keep in mind to create an effective process for the implementation of virtual meetings.
1. Review your state’s executive order and any applicable legislation. Look for what types of government meetings, hearings, and actions are permitted (or not permitted), and whether any conditions are placed on those actions (i.e. posting recordings and/or transcripts of meeting, making meeting materials available online in advance, etc.). Most state governments have a dedicated page on their websites for COVID-19 executive orders.
2. Consider how virtual meetings (or lack thereof) may impact provisions in your local preservation and zoning ordinances. Preservation ordinances often include automatic approvals or denials if action is not taken by the historic review commission within a certain period. Demolition delay provisions, often located in the zoning code, may also need to be considered. Some executive orders have tolled (paused or delayed) or extended deadlines. It is important to determine whether advocacy is needed to extend deadlines, or address automatic approvals or denials so neither property owners nor advocates are penalized during this crisis.
3. Engage early on with commissions and municipal governments to help develop and test a new process for virtual meetings. Working collaboratively with commissions can result in a more transparent, user-friendly process. Mock meetings before the first official virtual meetings are recommended, along with clear guidance and regular training sessions for the public on how to participate and comment during the virtual meetings.
4. Identify technology platforms needed to implement all aspects of virtual meetings. Platforms should include capacity for posting of large files, commission and staff member meeting participation, and public observation and participation during meetings. Special consideration should be given to underserved populations that may not have access to computers and internet, and whether access can be provided through temporary computer labs with appropriate social distancing protocols or other means. Offering a variety of options to participate will allow more people to access the meetings. These could include video-conferencing services, tv-streaming, YouTube channel, Facebook live, conference call phone line. ADA closed-captioning should also be included wherever possible.
The National Trust is developing a virtual meeting toolkit that includes best practices on organizing, meeting and working with community members for a range of purposes. We recognize that we aren’t the experts and are currently taking feedback in this Forum Connect discussion. See the draft toolkit and let us know what might be missing.
5. Provide sufficient, alternative forms of public notices that specifically state that the meeting will be held “virtually.” These notices should include information on how to attend the “virtual” meeting, and the ways to submit public comment or testimony. All meeting information should, at a minimum, be clearly visible on the commission’s webpage, and notice to property owners, impacted neighborhoods and others should be provided via e-mail if addresses are readily available, in addition to other means as specified in your jurisdiction.
6. Ensure that meeting materials are posted online at least 24-hours in advance. Meeting agendas, applications, plans, and other meeting materials should be readily available for review by the public. In addition, meeting transcripts and/or recordings along with public comments should be posted after each meeting.
7. Provide a variety of options for the public to submit comments to encourage broad access and public participation. Commissions could accept public comments in writing by email before or after meetings, by speaking during virtual commission meetings, by allowing concerned citizens to call into virtual meetings using a designated phone number, by submitting video or audio clips to be played during virtual commission meetings, or by other avenues. If questions or comments cannot be addressed, commissions are encouraged to delay action on those matters to the next meeting to allow for meaningful responses to public comments.
Most importantly, advocates should continue to be vigilant during this uncertain time. Consider creating a dedicated advocacy webpage if you don’t have one already and share notices, updates, and meeting materials with your members and constituents. This can also be a place to inform community members on how to participate and submit public comments, and to encourage active engagement in these new processes.
We are all learning as we navigate through this national health emergency. While much is lost when we cannot meet and discuss projects and policies in person, this crisis can also be an opportunity to develop new, lasting ways to broaden participation. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions are partnering to develop additional resources to support local preservation commissions and advocates during this crisis, including an upcoming webinar (more details to follow, sign up for our e-mail list for more information when it is available). Additional materials will be available on Preservation Leadership Forum.
Below are links to additional resources on virtual public meetings.
Anne Nelson is associate general counsel, and Jim Lindberg is senior policy director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.