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Zoom into Government Meetings

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Benjamin Paley
May 19, 2020

The Coronavirus pandemic presents unprecedented change to all facets of daily life. Many employees have been furloughed or otherwise fired. Many businesses have been forced to shut their doors. Public parks are either closed or impose restrictions on how many people can enter the park.

One area where the Coronavirus has only partially disrupted normal function is in local government meetings. Due to the Coronavirus, and the fact that local government meetings often bring people within close proximity to each other, local government meetings have not been able to be held in person.

In order to avoid endangering more lives, and to ensure the continuity of essential government services, many local governments across the United States are now using online meeting platforms. One of those programs is Zoom. Zoom is an online video conferencing system. Zoom has both meeting and webinar capabilities. In meeting mode, anyone can share their screen and participants are able to unmute themselves and talk.

As you can imagine, this presents several problems for local governments. One of those problems is that it is easier for local residents to interrupt meetings (so called “zoom bombing”). Zoom has a special feature to avoid this problem: Webinars. According to the Zoom website, “Webinars [are] like a virtual lecture hall or auditorium. Webinars are ideal for large audiences or events that are open to the public. Typically, webinar attendees do not interact with one another. Though Zoom provides options for you to get more social with your attendees, your average webinar has one or a few people speaking to an audience.” The Webinar feature is an additional plug-on for Zoom.

With a webinar, a local government meeting can function the same way as an in-person government meeting. The elected officials and government staff members are the only ones who can share their screen or be seen. Other meeting participants are able to watch the meeting, and pose questions in a Q&A section. Participants are able to speak, but only the hosts are able to unmute participants. Meeting hosts are also able to mute participants again once they have been unmuted. This ensures some familiarity and continuity of the function of government meetings.

For more information on how local governments can use Zoom, check out this website for Zoom for the government. In addition, check out this video from Michigan State University which explains how local governments can set up Zoom meetings.

Another problem that was faced initially by many local governments when implementing virtual meeting softwares were state constitutional and statutory provisions that only allowed local government meetings to proceed if a minimum number of people were meeting in person.

In Florida, for example, state law required that a quorum be physically present for government meetings to proceed. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis waived this requirement in Executive Order 20-69. According to a Florida Politics article written by Renzo Downey on April 30, 2020, this Executive Order was also enacted so that people could avoid being in groups of 10 or more people. A similar issue occurred in Pennsylvania.

DeSantis, in Executive Order 20-69, permitted local governments to, “Utilize communications media technology, such as telephonic and video conferencing, as provided in section 120.54(5)(b)2., Florida Statutes.” This allows for local governments to conduct meetings through video-conferencing software such as Zoom without fear of violating state law.

Florida Statutes Section 120.54(5)(b)2 states, “‘Communications media technology’ means the electronic transmission of printed matter, audio, full-motion video, freeze-frame video, compressed video and digital video by any method available.”

All in all, the monthly or bi-monthly commission meetings, for example, will continue in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic and are a crucial element of the local government setting. Perhaps we can continue to use the lessons learned from technology during a crises when the Coronavirus pandemic is over.

Author: Benjamin Paley is a board member of the South Florida Chapter of the ASPA. He graduated in 2018 from Florida Atlantic University with a Master of Public Administration degree. He currently studies law at Nova Southeastern University. Email: [email protected]

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