For Some, Virtual Government Meetings Limit Accessibility

Like many government meetings, Florida’s Miami-Dade region has gone online for health and safety reasons. The only problem with virtual meetings is that those without access to technology cannot participate.

by Joey Flechas and Aaron Leibowitz, Miami Herald / April 8, 2020
Shutterstock

(TNS) — Many of Miami-Dade’s local governments have gone virtual after the COVID-19 pandemic complicated a crucial part of open government: the public meeting.

While videoconferencing and live-streaming have allowed the public to watch municipal politicians meet remotely, another thorny question remains: How can governments make sure anyone can participate in these virtual meetings — particularly those without access to technology?

The issue is another side effect of efforts to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus and one that resonates beyond public participation in government. From job applications to digital unemployment forms, the technological disparities have come into clear focus during the crisis — U.S. Census data show there are approximately 150,000 households in Miami-Dade without any Internet access.

Miami-Dade County’s commission grappled with the possibility of hosting an in-person meeting before scrapping the plan and going to a strictly virtual meeting. Public speakers could leave voice messages and send in emails prior to the conference. In Miami Beach, administrators plan to have a hotline so people can call in and offer their comments for their next commission meeting on April 22. In Homestead and Palmetto Bay, the governments have accepted comments online before recent meetings.

Miami commissioners are scheduled to hold their second virtual meeting Thursday, where each commissioner will sign on to a video conference in separate rooms at City Hall — but this time, the city will allow members of the public who enter the building to interact with commissioners live through the video call. A computer logged into the Zoom video conference will allow people to speak with elected officials in real time, as opposed to submitting a comment ahead of time.

“There will be a laptop computer located in the lobby of City Hall if someone from the public does decide to come in person to provide public comment,” said city spokeswoman Stephanie Severino. “They will be allowed to speak through the laptop computer via Zoom for two minutes. After the speaker’s two minutes have expired, they will be asked to leave City Hall.”

The commission met on a video conference March 26, where members of the public were asked to make their comments on the meeting’s agenda through voicemails, email and videos submitted before the meeting. Several of the audio and video messages were played during the conference. For Thursday’s meeting, people will still be able to submit their comments remotely, said City Manager Art Noriega, but the city will also allow people to form a queue outside City Hall, keeping six feet apart from each other, and enter the lobby one at a time to give their comments via the laptop.

“The only thing that will change is I think we’re going to have the potential to have people come and speak at City Hall,” Noriega told the Miami Herald last week. “They would do it one at a time.”

The arrangement raises obvious concerns about allowing people to congregate at City Hall on Dinner Key. State and local authorities have issued several stay-at-home orders to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus that can cause severe respiratory illness. These orders also create a dilemma for people who want to address their government but can only do it by physically going to City Hall.

Miami Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla, who pushed to add the in-person option for residents who might not have a computer or smartphone, acknowledged the logistical concerns.

“There is a digital divide in our community,” Diaz de la Portilla said. “The people that don’t have access to computers have the same right to address their commissioners.”

Commissioner Ken Russell echoed his colleague, adding that city officials will ensure there’s enough space between any people who arrive in person.

“If people do show up, we’re going to have full protocol for social distancing. The doors will be open, they don’t have to touch anything,” Russell said.

Russell said he does not expect very many people to head to Dinner Key, nor does he expect the in-person option to be widely advertised. He encouraged anyone who has the capability to use the other formats to submit their comments. For future meetings, the city wants to add a call-in number so people can address the commission live during the meeting.

The digital divide was on full display Tuesday in Hialeah, where scores of people lined up outside the John F. Kennedy Library to receive paper unemployment forms, a solution for people who cannot print the forms from a computer at home. Although the site was meant to be a drive-through, many people without vehicles came on foot.

Although the Hialeah event drew more people than the typical number who give public comment during commission meetings, the scene illustrated the difficulty of connecting people across the economic spectrum with their government without physical contact.

Miami’s approach mirrors an initial plan to allow residents to address Miami-Dade County commissioners in person at the county board’s meeting on Tuesday. In late March, commission chairwoman Audrey Edmonson’s office drafted plans to have commissioners and staffers spaced apart onstage at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and seats at least six feet apart marked in the audience. For public comment, microphones would have been suspended from overhead and speakers would have had to keep social distance as they lined up.

Edmonson dropped the plan on April 2 after pushback, and the County Commission met on a video call Tuesday. Public speakers were allowed to call and leave a voice message the day before, send an email or call in live to the meeting.

Municipalities across Miami-Dade County have allowed residents to submit questions and comments to their clerks in the days leading up to virtual meetings, or to use a dial-in number or video chat to speak during designated public comment periods.

In Surfside, Mayor Charles Burkett has read some submitted comments aloud during virtual meetings, and has even let residents submit questions after the meetings have started, either by email or in a chat bar that the GoToMeeting service offers.

”It’s a fantastic tool for everyone to, while the meeting is going on, communicate with commissioners, the manager, anybody else,” Burkett said as Surfside’s March 31 virtual meeting began. “Obviously, please be respectful and courteous.”

In Opa-locka, residents will have until 5 p.m. Wednesday to submit their comments to the city clerk ahead of a 7 p.m. virtual commission meeting, which will be broadcast live on the city’s YouTube channel.

Comments submitted by that deadline will be read into the record during the meeting, according to an email from City Clerk Joanna Flores. Comments submitted after the deadline will be included in the record but won’t be read aloud.

Miami Beach’s commission will have a call-in number for its April 22 meeting to allow people to comment live during designated periods of the virtual meeting.

©2020 Miami Herald, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Platforms & Programs