On Tuesday night West Hollywood residents got a taste of what city government meetings may be like in the coming months as the coronavirus crisis rages on. The city’s Planning Commission held a special telephone meeting, the first of what may be many such teleconferencing meetings for the city.
The best description of the meeting is probably “a mess,” although some might want to use stronger language. In the end the Commission got the work done, but it was a long, tedious and bumpy road getting through the 110-minute meeting, a meeting most expected would last a mere 30 minutes.
However, there were valuable lessons to be gleaned from this meeting, lessons from which city staff can learn and make appropriate changes before the next tele-conferencing city meeting occurs. Although the city has cancelled all “non-essential” city meetings and city events through June 30 as a result of the coronavirus emergency, there is still important city business which must be handled, thus the City Council and the Planning Commission will continue to meet as needed during this period.
Coming up next is the City Council meeting, scheduled for April 6. That meeting was originally cancelled because the City Council Chamber was undergoing audio-video equipment upgrades. When the coronavirus crisis emerged, the April 6 City Council meeting was put back on the schedule, but it is unclear at present whether the meeting will happen live in the council chamber or just electronically.
On Tuesday, the city used the Go to Meeting teleconferencing app to hold this Planning Commission meeting. At one point there were 27 people on the call. Most of them were the commissioners and city staff, the majority participating via their laptop or tablet, but a few were on their telephones. There were also about seven members of the public listening in, according to the online tally.
Lots of problems occurred during this meeting, most notably multiple people talking at the same time, which resulted in nothing being understood. There were also issues with people not identifying themselves before they began speaking, people talking out of turn and people not speaking loudly enough to be understood. At times, there was also audio feedback creating an echo effect while some people talked.
There also were instances where a person could not be heard because he or she had the microphone on mute. Thus, there were periods of silence, which even affected procedure. At one point, a motion was on the floor (a virtual floor) and no one seemed to second it. Commission Chair Rogerio Carvalheiro (who handled a difficult meeting with great aplomb) was about to move to a different motion when Commissioner Adam Bass finally got his microphone unmuted to offer a second on the motion.
Similarly, the presentation documents that are usually projected onto the screen for everyone to see during in-person meetings were problematic using this Go to Meeting app. Although only a few documents were presented, it was hard to see them on the computer screen or understand why they were being presented.
There was also arguing over procedure and Robert’s Rules. of Order, which made the meeting especially tedious.
This meeting might have been gone more smoothly if the city had been using a teleconferencing app that included a video component, such as the Zoom app, which seems to be able to accommodate the needs of larger meetings well. The meeting likely would have been better if people could have seen the faces of the other people attending on their computer screens, especially of the person speaking, something the Zoom app accommodates.
As it was, using an app with only an audio component was ill advised since just hearing people’s voices was jumbled and disconcerting. Although the city made a recording which will be archived (as state law requires), anyone going back to listen to this meeting will likely be confused.