By Nancy E. Oates
Twenty-five years ago, market researcher Diane Bloom conducted focus groups on the then-emerging technology of telemedicine. As a community advocate and Chapel Hill resident, she also spent many evenings at Town Hall, waiting for her turn to speak to the town council. Last week, she logged into an online council meeting for the first time and addressed council, staff and guests via Zoom.
Bloom was surprised by the emotion that came through the screen, especially since speakers and council members can’t make eye contact with one another in a virtual meeting.
“Zoom has taken virtual communication to a new level,” Bloom said. “I’m not a technology person. I’m a people person. The fact that the emotions were so powerful to me attests that Zoom has a lot of human presence.”
Chapel Hill and Carrboro moved their council meetings online after Gov. Roy Cooper issued a stay-at-home order on March 13. Both towns have had to find ways to comply with the legal requirements of holding public hearings and voting when council members are not physically gathered.
While there have been some connectivity challenges, the overall response from members of the public who have attended online has been positive.
Catherine Dorando, Carrboro’s town clerk, said only one council meeting was scratched before IT purchased a Zoom subscription and worked with other staff to test the process internally. Council members didn’t need any special equipment. They logged on from home using their personal devices. Community members without internet access can phone in to speak.
“We anticipated there would be quite a few technical glitches, just having that many people trying to use a new service for the first time,” Dorando said. “Surprisingly, it’s been pretty great.”
She acknowledged a short delay when moving people to “panelist” mode to speak, but no more than it would take for people to walk up to the lectern in an in-person meeting.
Dorando said the number of residents who sign up to speak at online meetings has mirrored that of in-person meetings. Turnout varies widely, depending on what’s on the agenda.
“We cap the [online] attendance at 100,” she said. “We’re getting nowhere close to that.”
As many as a dozen people might sign up to speak on an issues of high interest, but items typically have only a handful of speakers. The portion of the meeting that allows the public to speak about items not on the agenda routinely draws one or two speakers.
Carrboro registers people to attend online only if they are speaking. Those who want to watch without speaking can do so via livestream or on Spectrum’s Channel 18, the public access TV channel.
“Not every local government in North Carolina has the luxury of that accessibility option,” Dorando said.
Similarly, Chapel Hill has not noticed a significant change in number of speakers or audience members since the council switched to virtual meetings on March 25. Its last in-person meeting was March 4.
Like Carrboro, Chapel Hill uses Zoom’s webinar function, as opposed to meeting format, for its council meetings. That enables deputy town clerk Amy Harvey to show only council members, presenters and speakers on-screen. Staff and the public who are watching but not speaking aren’t visible. Bloom would like to see that change.
“Even a listing of people who are there would be better,” she said. “Politically, that’s important to know.”
Chapel Hill’s June 10 council meeting revealed a noticeable advantage to online participation. Community members turned out in force to talk about defunding the police, and the meeting drew 312 unique viewers. Town Hall’s auditorium has a much smaller capacity. Had the meeting been in person, many attendees would have been diverted to an overflow room or had to wait outside.
Virtual meetings may enable more people to attend who would not come in person because of transportation or childcare constraints. Addressing council via Zoom is less anxiety-provoking for some folks, Dorando said.
“No one [online] has said, ‘Please bear with me; I’m nervous; I don’t like speaking in public.’ But that happened often during in-person meetings,” she said.
Bloom said that although in-person meetings allowed her to see who was in the audience, she was not able to see the face of the person addressing council the way she can online.
“I pay more attention when I can see someone’s face,” she said.
But, says Chapel Hill council member Hongbin Gu, there’s something missing when the council can’t meet in person.
“I miss seeing the public when they come to our meetings and chatting with them,” Gu said. “I miss those interactions with council members before and after meetings. I’m looking forward to going back to in-person meetings.”
Neither council has set a date for when in-person meetings will resume. Public safety during the course of the pandemic will guide their decision.
“The most important lesson learned for us has been to be patient with the process and learn from each experience,” Chapel Hill Town Manager Maurice Jones wrote in an email. “Of course it’s our preference to offer in-person meetings, but considering the circumstances of the pandemic we are pleased to be able to provide this alternative.”