Tips for Running a Safe Public Meeting

Jeff Levine, NNECAPA Public Information Officer

All three Northern New England states have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by temporarily allowing public meetings and hearings to be held via videoconferencing. However, since that happened, there has been a lot of talk of "zoombombers" coming in to public meetings, not to listen and provide public input, but to disrupt. At best, they may interrupt and loudly prevent discourse. Unfortunately, more often they may present unsavory screens of pornography or violence.

Recently, the Bath (ME) City Council had to abruptly end their meeting due to a zoombomber. They are not alone.

So what do you do if you need to keep your public meetings public, but safe? There are a lot of ideas, and most of them help. Here are some ideas for those of you who use Zoom as your platform. None of these ideas are foolproof, but they can help:

  1. Hold your meeting as a "webinar" rather than a "meeting." That allows you to have your board or council, as well as staff, as a "panel" and keeps everyone else (from the public or otherwise) as listeners. Listeners can raise their hands and speak, but can't take over the meeting.
  2. Change your access settings so only "hosts" can share their screens.
  3. Manage your participants so they are automatically muted and can't unmute themselves. That way, they will need to raise their virtual hands and be unmuted by a host.
  4. Shut off the "chat" function so people can't send messages to one another. At a minimum, disable file sharing via chat.

This is an emerging technology for public meetings, and may end up being very temporary. However, I suspect that residents will like remote access. Right now, only Vermont allows remote participation in meetings outside of this emergency state, and only as a supplement to a physical meeting. I suspect that Maine and New Hampshire will follow suit, as residents find out how convenient it is to "attend" a public hearing and testify in your pajamas!

More advice on running remote public meetings safely from Boston's Metropolitan Area Planning Council here, and from Rhode Island here

If your meeting isn't public, here are some other tips you can try to keep things secure

News from the Grapevine

Tex Haeuser, AICP, is moving on from being the Planning Director in the City of South Portland.  The website for his new consulting practice is  Tex will be available for assisting on a variety of community planning and climate change mitigation projects.  Tex’s successor to the South Portland post is Milan Nevajda who is familiar to many Maine planners from his work, prior to moving to California, with Mark Eyerman.  Please give Milan a hearty Zoom welcome once he begins work in South Portland at the end of April.

The Planning Division in Salem, NH welcomed Assistant Planner Jacob LaFontaine in December 2019. Jacob is improving code enforcement efforts and drafting potential zoning amendments for sign regulations, workforce housing, and solar energy.

NHPA has decided to not hold a June conference due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization expects to present their annual awards virtually this summer.

Other News from Salem, NH

Buildout of the former Rockingham Park racetrack into a 2.5 million square foot mixed use Tuscan Village continues. Building permits have been issued for retail stores, restaurants, and a fitness center, while construction of 281 apartments and a gas station/convenience store is well along.  One of the first out-of-state medical offices for Mass General Hospital is also planned for the site.

In response to the COVID-19 Pandemic, staff adopted new protocols to conduct traditional functions with no public access to Town Hall. Upcoming meetings will be held remotely via videoconferencing platforms.

Make sure to check out these other interesting articles from NNECAPA members!

Free Speech on Your Body? by Dwight Merriam (courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune)

Historic Preservation and the Law by Jess Phelps and Mary O'Neil (courtesy of Natural Resources & Environment Volume 34, Number 3, Winter 2020. © 2020 by the American Bar Association)