Moving Planning Commission Meetings Online During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Big-City Perspective
The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging planners around the country to rethink how they work with various shelter-in-place and social distancing guidelines. One particular hurdle is how to continue with planning commission and other board meetings to keep communities moving forward.
Emily Mack directs the Department of Metropolitan Development for the City of Indianapolis, Indiana. She chats with APA's Jo Peña about how, within a relatively short period of time, their team developed a standard operating procedure for the online meetings of their Metropolitan Development Commission, Board of Zoning Appeals, and other governmental functions. Mack also outlines the many lessons they've learned along the way while maintaining these critical government services.
[00:00:06.670] Jo Peña: Welcome to the American Planning Association podcast. I'm Jo Peña, research associate at APA. Cities big and small are having to creatively bring people together virtually to observe social distancing requirements. The City of Indianapolis, Indiana, has transitioned to virtual public meetings and hearings recently. Joining us is Emily Mack, director of the Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development, with tips for hosting meetings in a large city. Within a relatively short period of time, their team has developed a standard operating procedure for their Metropolitan Development Commission, Board of Zoning Appeals, and other governmental functions. Emily, thanks for taking the time to share your experience with our members. Can you tell us a little bit more about what's happening in Indianapolis?
[00:00:51.020] Emily Mack: Absolutely, thanks so much, Jo. So in Indianapolis, like so many other cities and states throughout the United States right now, our governor and then subsequently our mayor has issued a state of emergency, as well as stay-at-home orders for Indianapolis and Marion County residents and workers. So like so many of our businesses and other municipalities throughout the United States, we have had to shift to a work-[from]-home or remote-work situation. And as you might imagine, in the world of planning, that is really also heavily dependent on public meetings and public hearings in order to conduct business. That has led to a major change in our operations. So we have had to very quickly but also very strategically and thoughtfully adapt how we go about doing that and shift our operations so that we can continue that continuity of government services.
[00:02:01.510] JP: One of the things that we're seeing is cities are looking for different ways of hosting virtual meetings. What special considerations should large cities keep in mind when planning and hosting virtual meetings?
[00:02:14.810] EM: So when we realized what these — the, you know, the stay-at-home orders and what that really meant and what that meant for our operations and yet also trying to ensure that we were providing that continuity of government services, we quickly realized and shifted our thought process to, OK, how do we transition to electronic public meetings and public hearings? And so we really systematically broke it down. And so things that I think that are really, really important are, number one, consider your technology platform. And really keep all persons in mind when selecting that technology platform, but also make sure that you're having constant communication with your IT folks. So as we were evaluating those technology platforms, we actually had our technology folks like buy us all the time. In Indianapolis, we actually chose to go with Cisco's Webex, which I understand some other cities have not chosen to go with that, but we actually did that for security purposes. And so it's actually worked really, really well for us and also provides us with additional functions and features in order to be able to accommodate all persons and facilitate public comments. I would also say other things to really keep in mind is how you go about setting everything up. So in Indianapolis, we literally — I almost think of it as a collaborative partnership between certain people on our planning staff, our technology staff, and our Office of Corporation Counsel — so our attorneys, our board attorneys, and particularly our public access counselor — to ensure that everything that we were doing and how we were basically building this certainly not only complied with the law, but also complied with our IT needs as well as our department operations needs. The other thing that I would say special consideration is because this is so new to so many people — and that could be your own staff, that could be board members or commissioners, your attorneys, it could be new for your public access television, and certainly the general public — is we actually developed onboarding and training sessions. So we actually had practice sessions. We had practice sessions with our own staff to make sure that they felt comfortable and were able to work out any technology kinks. Then we actually scheduled practice meetings with our individual boards and commissions. And we also developed tutorials for them so that they could not only have that tutorial but then actually practice. So that also enabled us to work out technology kinks, right — audio and mic issues, those types of things. Learning how to use the mute button was a big thing. We engaged our public access television. That's Channel 16 here in Indianapolis. So we had a session with them to make sure that they could remote access in so that everything could still be aired on television like it normally is. And then we actually had some small practice sessions with the public just to ensure that how we were approaching things and thinking about things would work. So we had some petitioners who often file frequent petitions actually engaged and participate. So I think those things — like, again, really setting it up so that you've got your technology platform, you have a small core team working on this, you have onboarding and training sessions and tutorials. That's been really helpful. There are two other things that I would — actually three other things now that I think about it — that I would suggest other cities think about, is, is as detailed as this sounds, we actually developed a script for our board chairs or our commission chairs so that at the beginning of the hearing there's some, what we would call housekeeping items, right? So reminding people that this is being done electronically; reminding people about the mute button; sharing with folks that if they're having some connectivity issues, to close other browsers, disconnect from VPN. All of those things that are really minute, but at the same time can impact how a person can, can participate. And also, like, voting, right? So our voting is different. Because we, we actually now do a roll call. So each commissioner or board member's name is called, and they actually verbally articulate their vote because some people may be listening in via telephone, not just participating via video conferencing. The other thing, and that kind of leads me to another point, is as we were going through this, to really be mindful and put yourself in the shoes of each and every person. So the small core team that I talked about that worked on this, we put our shoes in the self — you know, ourselves in the shoes of our staff members, of our board members and commissioners, of a petitioner who may have filed that petition and may be trying to make their case in front of that board or commission, in the, in the shoes of our public access television, and then certainly in the shoes of neighborhood and community groups, and, you know, whether they're in support or remonstrance. So we really tried to think through it that way as well. And then the last thing that I'll offer is we actually really also had to shift our operations kind of on the back end and really be very forward thinking and thinking not only about that individual week's hearings, but the following week and the week after that. And so we now have a Monday morning, 8:30 every Monday morning, we have a check in with staff. And we actually developed a Google Doc. And it goes week by week, and it's every single hearing that is going to be held that week. And it has everything from the Webex address to who is the host, who's the alternate host, who's facilitating public comments? What time does the Webex open? What time — what is that drop-dead timeline for staff to join? Who's checking the audio? Has Channel 16 been invited? And then who are all the city staff that need to be on as participants, as well as our attorneys, as well as the respective board or commission members, and then who are any members of the public that we know need to be added as panelists because they are going to actively participate and speak. So that is a way we've also had to shift our operations to have those, those check-ins. So I realize that was a really verbose and a very lengthy answer, but those are just some, I would say, some special considerations that have been very helpful to us.
[00:10:18.550] JP: It sounds like there's a lot of moving pieces and collaboration that's required to make this a successful process. You mentioned one strategy, which was using Google Docs to keep everyone on the same page, but I'm curious to know, what other strategies have you found helpful in organizing your meetings?
[00:10:37.800] EM: I would kind of go back to, I think, a previous comment that it's really to break down each component step by step. Because otherwise I think it can become really overwhelming. So I think, again, breaking down those components into technology, right? So ensuring that invitations have been sent out and that it's on everybody's calendar, breaking down legal notices and the various components, because how we've actually had to, to do our legal notices has changed a little bit. The other thing that I think was really helpful for us so that we could kind of take this step by step was also breaking down the cases that were going in front of various boards or commissions or hearing examiners or hearing officers. So rather than addressing everything all at once and going forward [with] business as normal, we chose to break that down. So we would start with what I would call low-hanging fruit and then kind of gradually worked our way up. So, for example, we — one of the very first things we did at our Metropolitan Development Commission meeting was the commission heard and then voted on petitions of no appeals. That means those are cases where there's already been due process. There's already been a public hearing by a hearing examiner. There has been no known remonstrance and there were no appeals filed. And so those were ones that we were able to address from the get-go and kind of get those out of the way, which enabled those persons — right? — to go and do what they needed to do, so they could go and get their building permits or, you know, obtain a mortgage or refinancing or whatever that is. Then we worked on expedited cases. So those were cases that, again, were — there was no known remonstrance, that staff was reported — or supportive. And so we moved those through. And then we are — then we worked on cases where, they were easier. There was little opposition, or if there was any opposition, it was, it was rather minor in the grand scheme of things, and staff was supportive. I'm going to be really honest — some of those more controversial cases, those bigger ones, we have continued just due to the complexity of those cases. Those where there is an extensive amount of dialogue, a lot of known remonstrance. We have intentionally kind of, we've continued those out right now to about the middle of May so that we could really hone and refine our processes and ensure that we had a really good system in place before hearing and having a really robust hearing on those cases. The other thing I would say, as far as strategies that we really found most helpful in organizing our meetings, was to also really think about communication and communication tools and frequent communication to a wide variety of audiences. And I think that that's been really helpful to us. And so we actually have Monday morning communication that goes out to our boards and commission members, separate communication that goes out to our city-county councilors, communication that goes out to over 500 neighborhood and community organizations, and then also communication for frequent petitioners, developers, attorneys, et cetera. And then the, the last thing I think I would offer on: really helpful when organizing your public meeting is thinking through every single component, step by step, of facilitating public comments. That is absolutely essential. And how you are going to obtain and receive that information, share it with the respective board and commission, not just prior to the hearing, but certainly during the hearing. So I think, again, when it just goes back to organizing those public meetings and public hearings, it's looking at every single aspect of those public hearings from a wide variety of viewpoints and just thinking through each and every component step-by-step.
[00:15:31.300] JP: What legal hurdles do cities face when organizing virtual meetings?
[00:15:36.590] EM: You know, when I really think about those legal hurdles that cities face when organizing those, those virtual meetings, there's a couple of things that come to mind. One, ensuring that we are still complying with the Indiana Open Door Law. Our governor provided an executive order [that] allows us some exceptions to that Open Door Law, but certainly ensuring that we are still complying with that is first and foremost. So that's certainly very important. I really think a, a huge thing that we are so cognizant of is just ensuring that all persons have access to a fair hearing in a virtual environment. That is top of mind at all times. And that, to be candid, that can be really difficult, right? Because you can't just walk in to the city-county building and walk into the public-assembly room, which is where we have our public hearings. So ensuring that there is always a fair hearing in that virtual environment is always top of mind. And lawsuits, right? I mean, I would, I would be remiss — I think every department director is constantly thinking about litigation and when those lawsuits may hit and what you're going to get sued over. And so that is always a legal hurdle I always think about. I think it's also really difficult sometimes in, in larger cities just because of the sheer number often of boards and commissions that you might have. Indianapolis is — it's a — we have a consolidated city-county. It's 403 square miles. And so we have almost 10 different boards and commissions and, and hearing examiners and hearing officers. And so ensuring that they are all completely and totally complying with the law and that you're ensuring a fair hearing for the wide variety of, of types of cases. Again, that's really challenging. And that's, that's very difficult.
[00:17:53.190] JP: What considerations went into the decision to move to an online-meeting format?
[00:17:59.090] EM: Continuity of government services, right? Just because we shifted into a work-from-home environment doesn't mean that work stops, doesn't mean that people don't need to rezone their property in order to obtain financing or a mortgage, doesn't mean that someone doesn't need to rezone or obtain a variance of use, perhaps to open a small business so they can get a small business loan. You know, it doesn't mean that people still don't want to pull the, pull building permits to construct a new multifamily or a mixed-use development. So, in some cases, many of those developments had been in the planning process or, you know, the predevelopment process for months and months and months, and it's certainly not fair to them. It's not fair to property owners or businesses or developers to just simply put the brakes on and halt everything. So the number-one consideration that went into that decision to transition to online meetings was continuity of government services.
[00:19:12.780] JP: You touched on this a little bit earlier in regard to setting up for the meetings and touching base with different folks on your team, but could you tell us a little bit more about your setup for virtual meetings? How is the community able to participate?
[00:19:27.800] EM: Yeah. So just as far as, again, the setup, so the City of Indianapolis, we use Webex to host. And it's very similar to, like, GoToMeeting or Zoom, which I think many, many people are familiar with that electronic platform as well. So, you know, people can join. They can actively participate. You can record those hearings, et cetera. So I'm not going to go into great detail about that. If you need more, let me know. As far as the setup, like I said earlier, from an internal staff perspective — right? — we have a, a weekly review session to ensure from an operational and a technical and a participatory perspective that we have thought through each and every hearing. And if we need to make any changes or adjustments, we can, we can certainly do that. As far as how the community is able to participate, we did two things that have been actually really helpful and worked really well. So we actually set up email resource accounts. And so — just, you know, simple things like d-m-d public comments at Indy dot gov [firstname.lastname@example.org]. And numerous people have access to that, so that is constantly monitored. And we gather any of those public comments on a very frequent basis, and then they're kind of packaged together and shared with the respective board or commission at least 24 hours prior to that public hearing so that commissioners and board members have adequate time to review those public comments that have come in via email. The other thing that we do: we have a dedicated staff person that is monitoring that email, that email resource account, during the public hearing so that if somebody does want to submit something through email, they can do so. We also use Webex's Q&A function. And so that is also actively monitored during that hearing. So we have — people can email in comments. They can certainly share those comments with, with staff members. We have somebody monitoring email during the public hearing. And we also have someone monitoring the question and answer function on Webex. What we built in is — I mentioned earlier that we've kind of built scripts for our, our board members, for the chairpeople who are facilitating that. And in that script, we've actually intentionally built in time for the chairperson or the commission president to pause and say, "I'd like to pause at this time and ask staff if we have received any public comments either via email or the Q&A function relative to this specific case. And that is how we, we can read those out when — so we might say, "Mr. President, yes, we have one question. And with your permission, I would like to read that question now." And so that's how we facilitate that ongoing dialogue.
[00:22:44.760] JP: It sounds like there's a variety of systems to get input once community members are in the meeting. How did you reach out to community members to let them know about the meetings?
[00:22:54.970] EM: So that kind of goes back to the original communication strategy. And so we first started with, again, it kind of — it turned into the weekly email. It's kind of amazing how this stuff evolves, right? So we started out with an email, actually a variety of emails, that was sent out to all 500-plus registered neighborhood and community organizations within the City of Indianapolis, as well as utilizing our city-county councilors and our mayor's neighborhood advocates. And they also would share stuff with their contacts, and we also had information posted on Nextdoor. So we were trying to literally think of anything and everything, whether it's Nextdoor, wheth— also on social media, you know, working with our city-county councilors, incorporating stuff into neighborhood newsletters to let them know. And so that's where we said, you know, really driving people to the DMD website because we are frequently updating that, so that's a great resource for them. Updating stuff on Nextdoor and just trying to, again, think of anything and everything that we could. We've also done, I would almost call it a little bit of, of handholding, so that if there were specific residents or neighborhood leaders that we knew were keenly engaged or aware of or really following a certain case, we also even did some special outreach to them just to let them know, like, hey, this is not going to be heard at this particular hearing. We're going to hold this hearing, but because there is so much — it's a really complex case, we're going to request that this case be continued to May 14th or, you know, something like that. So, again, just thinking of any way that we can possibly get the word out.
[00:25:10.080] JP: Was there any training or technical assistance provided for community members who might not be familiar with Webex or perhaps the different ways of contacting your department?
[00:25:22.050] EM: Yes. And then I'm going to add on to that, that we were also really cognizant of everybody may not have a home computer. Right? And so not just thinking about utilizing Webex or, you know, teaching and training and providing tools for video conferencing, but also just thinking about if a person doesn't have access to a home computer or they don't have the ability to video conference, you know, how can they still participate? And so just even thinking about if someone was calling in via a phone. So I think that that was another important component to us. So I kind of talked a little bit about this earlier, but one of the things that we did was we actually created user guides. And they're not super lengthy or long. We initially did this for our boards and commissioners who may not have been familiar with Webex. And we came up with this when we were kind of starting to do those practice sessions, right? So even including some screenshots of what a Webex screen would look like and where the mute button is, because that's important. But also even demonstrating, you know, this is what the Q&A window will look like, those types of things. That kind of evolved, very quickly evolved, to realizing, hey, this would also be helpful for staff because there's other things that staff need to know about and other features, right? So even like how to share content, if we need to, like, walk through a presentation or something like that. And then that evolved into, OK, should we really think about this in — from a neighborhood resident's perspective, right? What if they've never used Webex before, ever? And so, you know, what does it look like and how do you access it, and, you know, images and, again, screenshots. So we've not only sent that out, but we've also, we keep that uploaded on our website just because a lot of people will go there to, like, check agendas and those types of things. So it's there. We have also disseminated that to neighborhood groups and leaders so that they know about it. And we also include that as part of our weekly communication. So worst-case scenario, right, people are probably getting bombarded with communication in multiple ways, but I would rather them know about it and know how to access and find it and be able to use that technology rather than not. The other thing is that we are always, we try to be so mindful that, yea— again, everyone may not have access to a computer, but many people at least have access to a telephone. And maybe they don't feel comfortable doing video conferencing. They might have access to a computer, but maybe just video conferencing is, is a little out of their comfort zone. You know, they might read things on Nextdoor, but going on a video conference might be too much. So we're, we always make sure that we provide all of the telephone dial-in numbers as well so people can just call and listen or, or participate in that way as well.
[00:28:52.720] JP: It's been a few weeks now since this transition started. Have there been any lessons that your team has incorporated or learned from since you first began hosting virtual meetings and hearings?
[00:29:07.180] EM: Yes. I — there's, there's a couple of things. I think that, one, we have realized like constant communication and those, you know, those check-ins — so actually, we have — the DMD, we have a senior leadership team meeting right now. We're still doing them everyday. We may adjust that a little bit. That has been an agenda item every single day on our senior leadership agenda. And so we talk about it. We, we troubleshoot, we talk about issues. And we are constantly finding ways to tweak, to adjust, to think about things differently, different ways to communicate or even visually illustrate some things on our website. So, one, constant communication with staff and being willing to tweak and adjust. And when I say with staff, I literally, I mean, not just our planning staff but also our technology folks, our attorneys, et cetera. So that is one thing, always tweaking and adjusting. That is a lesson that has been learned — and evolving and continuously improving. The other thing that I think has kind of been a little bit of an eye-opener for us that I'm not sure initially, going through this, that I really anticipated, it's almost a little bit more labor intensive than I would have thought for staff. And when I say that, I mean almost, like, the host — we have an alternate host, right? We always have someone just in case something happens. There's connectivity issues or something. So you have to have a host, an alternate host, and then the monitoring public comment, because we really want to make sure that that is separate than our hosting ability. Right? Because the host has a pretty big job of ensuring if you need to mute someone or unmute or something like that, or if someone joined as an attendee but they need to be converted over to a panelist or whatever. Monitoring the public comment is, is pretty intensive. So I think going into this, I didn't, I guess, realize or fully understand that was a little bit more resource intensive. We've worked it out and it's fine. It's just something that we've, we've learned.
[00:31:47.010] JP: What do these changes mean for future meetings? Will this have an impact on how your department functions post-COVID-19?
[00:31:54.630] EM: That's a great question [laughs]. And, you know, I think that it's a little too early to really understand. I think so — in so many cases, that cities and towns and states have been very quickly adjusting and adapting and implementing these these virtual public hearings. But I think it's just, it's still too early to tell. I know it's new to us. I imagine that it's incredibly new to, to many other people as well. So I think it's yet to be determined how this will really impact and change the future of in-person meetings.
[00:32:37.040] JP: Yeah, hopefully some of these lessons that you've learned will translate to more access for community members, who maybe are more comfortable attending over the phone or perhaps even continuing to use a Webex platform or other platforms.
[00:32:48.800] EM: Absolutely.
[00:32:50.660] JP: Is there anything else that you'd like to share about your experience thus far?
[00:32:56.380] EM: You know, I — I was going to say "I don't think so," but then I kind of thought about it. I think going through this so much is just breaking down everything piece by piece, step by step. And, again, really putting yourself in the shoes of every single different participant. And whether that is from your attorney to the person who is running your public access TV to the people who are facilitating the public comments to your board members, your commissioners, to your neighborhood leaders, to your petitioners. And I will say that I also think that almost overcommunicating to each and every person, whether that is your own staff, whether that is your board and commission members or community groups and organizations, is, is really — it's oddly helpful in this sense because people know what's going on, they feel informed, they feel engaged, they know how to participate and be a part of it. And so just really ensuring that you're thinking of each and every participant and audience member and overcommunicating and providing those, those helpful tools, resources, and access guides has been really critical and really helped lead to the success. You know, it's, it's kind of incredible that as we've transitioned to this, I've had folks reach out and whether that's board members or commissioners, attorneys, developers, and then actually some neighborhood residents who I have been shocked actually said, "Hey, this actually went really well. This wasn't so bad." But I think that's because we, again, have really kept those lines of communication open, thought about every single participant that there possibly could be, and really engaged them and empowered them to be a part of it.
[00:35:05.970] JP: Emily, thank you so much for joining us and for telling us a little bit more about what your department is doing. We really appreciate your insight and your tips on how to proceed in this time when a whole lot of what we're dealing with is unknown. But certainly there are things that are within our control.
[00:35:21.210] EM: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. It's been an absolute pleasure.