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Up to the Task: Moving a Public Meeting Online

By May 28, 2020 No Comments

Governor Newsom’s March 19 Stay at Home order abruptly impacted how all Californians live, work and play. Workplaces that weren’t deemed essential had to quickly adapt to a new normal. Many of us focused on maintaining productivity and services that somewhat resemble life before COVID-19 – a true example of learning as you go.

No sector has had to adapt as quickly as public agencies, which can’t shut down during a crisis. Throughout the state, governing bodies have scrambled to develop procedures and identify tools to host its public meetings online. This hasn’t been without challenges – four-hour in-person council meetings turned into eight-hour virtual meetings mired by connection issues, dead air, and most importantly, a drastic drop in public participation.

It’s in this environment that the Hollywood Burbank Airport asked for Cerrell’s help in navigating these challenges while preserving the public’s ability to actively participate in crucial public policy discussions

For the past nine months, we’ve worked with the Hollywood Burbank Airport to coordinate the Southern San Fernando Airplane Noise Task Force, a 14-member group of local and federal elected officials established to develop recommendations to alleviate aircraft noise in the Valley. The in-person meetings frequently drew hundreds of community members and featured hours of public comment, but the Stay at Home orders meant that the seventh meeting scheduled for early May couldn’t be held in-person.

This meeting was perhaps the most important – the Task Force has heard months of community input, analysis and discussion, and were ready to being formalizing its recommendations. Being forced to hold this meeting online raised the stakes and we quickly recognized the challenges in coordinating an online bilingual meeting with multiple options to submit public comment.

Ultimately, we decided it would be too challenging, both technologically and in terms of holding an efficient and productive meeting, to allow for live public comment from potentially hundreds of community members. Instead, we had to create options for all interested parties to express their views on what the Task Force should recommend to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Our Must Have List

  • Live interpretation into Spanish
  • A multiday window to collect written and phone-in public comments ensuring all members of the public could submit feedback
  • Robust controls to manage a meeting with hundreds of people
  • Ability for cohosts/users to control the meeting from multiple locations
  • Segmentation of meeting participants (Task Force members, Task Force facilitator, airport representations and the FAA) from the general attendees
  • Recording options to capture the meeting

Our Solution

Public Comment

Public comment was accepted in two formats – online written public comment and phone-in public comment to a voicemail system. The public comment period for both methods was made available to the public at least nine days prior to the meeting. To expand access, we accepted written for each agenda item up until that agenda item began. Telephone comments must have been received at least 24 hours prior to the start of the meeting to provide time for transcription. Public comment received within these timeframes was read aloud during the meeting by airport staff. And finally, all written and oral comments received in Spanish was professionally translated.

Participation Options

As most of the country has done, we landed on Zoom as our preferred platform. Specifically, Zoom’s webinar features offered the controls we were looking for as well as options to assign interpreters and accommodate several hundred attendees. At this point we were missing one public participation option – a way for Spanish-speaking community members to dial-in with a phone and listen to the meeting.

The Zoom platform provides an interpretation feed when watching the meeting on a computer but lacks the capability to rebroadcast that Spanish feed to a phone for people who do not have internet access. Our solution was to simultaneously host an online meeting with a similar platform such as GoToMeeting to capture the Spanish feed from the Zoom webinar and rebroadcast with an option to listen with a phone. The links to watch as well as phone numbers to simply listen we made available on the airport’s website more than a week prior to the meeting.

After many weeks of planning and testing, the seventh meeting of the Task Force was held over the course of two nights on May 6 and May 7. Hundreds of public comments were heard by the Task Force members before they made their final decisions and voted on 19 recommendations to send to responsible entities in the hopes of providing relief to the communities of the southern San Fernando Valley.

Each public agency has its own unique challenges to replicate its standard meeting procedures in this new environment. The Cerrell team stands ready to help meet these challenges and support its clients whether in-person or at a distance. We’re happy to help and answer any questions you may have – feel reach to email us at [email protected] to see how we can meet your needs.

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