An informal survey by Tennessee Coalition for Open Government on governing body meetings held in April and May has for the first time documented the state’s widespread experience with electronic meetings under the Open Meetings Act.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the governor on March 20 temporarily suspended part of the Open Meetings Act to allow governing bodies to meet and conduct business by electronic means rather than being required to gather a quorum of members physically present at the same location.
TCOG’s survey offers a window into how things went.
The survey, available on the TCOG website, was open to anyone who wanted to share their experience with government meetings during the pandemic.
A majority of the 71 responses were from interested citizens and journalists, although some were from government officials who were participants in the meetings.
Each person was asked to answer a series of questions about a single meeting and report how the meeting was held, its availability to the public, if public comment was allowed and if a recording was available afterward.
Each respondent was also asked to rate audibility of the meeting and access to meeting materials such as agendas and board packets, and if they thought members of governing bodies should be allowed to continue to meet electronically when the pandemic threat lessened.
Most of the meetings described (25) were held by video conference, using some type of web-based video conference software, like Zoom, Webex, or GoToMeeting. Another 12 were held by a combination of phone call-in and video, and 12 were phone conference only.
Nine respondents provided information on meetings conducted by a governing body that met in-person. And 13 gave feedback on meetings that were held through a combination of in-person and electronic participation.
The bulk of the surveys were for meetings held in April, and a handful were for meetings held in late March and early May.
Should electronic meetings continue when the COVID-19 threat lessens?
When asked whether governing bodies should be allowed to continue to meet electronically when the COVID-19 pandemic threat lessened, most, or 39, said no. But 19 said “maybe” and 13 said “yes.”
“If there is manageable risk, and adequate testing capacity, only then should in-person meetings resume,” said one respondent in the “maybe” category.
“It depends on the status of the pandemic,” said another “maybe” respondent. “In-person meetings are preferred, but particularly vulnerable people should be allowed to participate electronically until it’s safe.”
Some were adamant that in-person meetings should resume. They cited problems with electronic meetings that included technical issues but focused even more on public oversight, public comment, and the ability to have more robust discussion at in-person meetings:
“Ineffective to meaningful debate and understanding of issues.”
“Too many opportunities that allow members to operate under the table, literally. Making decisions with an audience is 100 percent different than making one without.”
“They should meet in person and in front of the public whom they serve. If local governing bodies are allowed to hold electronic meetings, it will be like the proverbial camel’s nose in the tent. It will become the norm rather than the exception. Its use will grow, and tax increases and other controversial issues will be voted upon by commissioners and council members and school boards sitting in the comfort of their living room instead of sitting in front of their constituents deliberating issues and hearing public comments.”
“While electronic meetings have proven to be far better run than I would have expected, the format, by its nature, seems to limit discussion somewhat. While fine as a temporary measure, continuing without a public health need would represent an unnecessary erosion in the open and participatory local government that is, now more than ever, required.”
“Electronic meetings with no personal contact feels like it limits the openness and transparency, eliminates the ability to assess ‘body language’, and potentially seems to limit, shape, or restrict the participation.”
“Should not be allowed to continue electronically because there is no interaction with citizens.”
Others focused on technical issues or roadblocks.
“Not every household in our county has access to the internet,” said someone in Anderson County observing a school board meeting. “You couldn’t watch the meeting with older equipment / operating systems.”
“The meeting is not near as smooth, as more than one can start talking at once.”
“(You) have to go through many steps to gain access. The only public access was through a recording of the meeting the next day.”
Those who said electronic meetings should continue focused on safety as it related to the coronavirus.
“Most of the members of this body are high risk, between cancer and being in a vulnerable age group. I think they should allow them to meet electronically in the future if they are not able to meet in person as long as the same rules are followed.”
“I believe it will allow the council to continue its mission without putting its members health in jeopardy.”
“I think that until we have widespread, immediate testing or a vaccine, the meetings should be held electronically.”
“I would like to see meetings return to normal as the public health threat lessons. However, since most bodies appear to be able to handle electronic meetings, the option should be available if there is a spike in COVID-19 cases in a city or county.”
Rating the audibility of electronic meetings
More than half, or 43, of the respondents who viewed or listened to a meeting held electronically rated the audibility high, giving marks of 4 and 5 on a scale of 1 to 5.
However, 14 gave low scores of 1 or 2 to audibility on meetings they listened to. The rest rated it a 3.
The complaints about audibility ranged from failure of members to use microphones, people who were muted and didn’t know, background noise and members interrupting each other.
“One board member was in his backyard and an American Robin chirped constantly. Robin made more sense than some of the board members,” said a journalist listening to a BOMA meeting in Wartrace.
“Things generally ran smoothly, but towards the end of the meeting, there were some issues with hearing board members whose audio was cutting in and out,” said another journalist covering a Knox County Board of Education meeting.
“Audio was something like trying to find an AM station on a long drive — long periods of silence, then static, then a voice, then static, followed by more silence,” said one listener of a Pigeon Forge City Commission meeting.
“It was difficult to hear as the speakers do not speak directly into their microphones and do not speak clearly,” said someone listening to a Ridgetop board of aldermen meeting
In one instance, in Germantown, multiple people who listened to the meeting reported that the mayor muted an alderman.
In the case of a Mt. Juliet city commission meeting which was broadcast on TV, the observer attributed audio problems to the room setup. “Commissioners sat at a semi-circle table. Sometimes audio was a little spotty because of each person’s distance from the microphone.”
It wasn’t just the public interested in good audio. “Some commissioners had trouble hearing,” said a reporter who was covering the Overton County Commission.
Many who rated the audibility of the meetings high were surprised at how smoothly the meetings went.
“It was fine. I heard everything even better than the in-person meetings,” said an observer of a Dyer board of aldermen meeting.
One observer of the Marshall County Commission said that the audio was “surprisingly good considering so many participating commissioners with varying degrees of technological understanding.”
Another at the Davidson County Election Commission meeting said the use of a roll-call vote was helpful. “The chair of the DCEC had a roll call vote on all decisions on the agenda which improved the ability of the public to follow the process.”
Improving electronic meetings
When asked how to improve electronic meetings, the observers suggested better video management so you knew who was speaking, using microphones so audio is better, making it easier for the public to know how to access meetings and provide public comments, and live-streaming of all meetings, including work sessions and committee meetings.
“I would like to see all of the public body’s members shown at all times on the video. Those members speaking in their official capacity should be highlighted during the time they have the floor,” said an observer of a Metro Nashville city council meeting.
“Need to be able to see whomever is speaking at any given time,” said a citizen who watched a Spring Hill board of aldermen meeting. “The meeting that I watched here had the mayor’s video up on the screen, and I could only hear the voices for other participants.”
“Require all commissioners to have a clearly visible nameplate,” said an observer who watched a Mt. Juliet city commission meeting that was held in person, but broadcast on TV.
“Only one camera is used here. Three would allow various views, and faces, though then you need a video producer,” said a journalist covering the Hickman County Commission, in which members of the governing body met in person, but showed the meeting live on the county’s website.
“If need is to continue electronically, give each member a mic. so audio is understandable,” said an observer of a Unicoi board of aldermen meeting who noted that the meeting had only one microphone.
Some wanted to see documents that were being discussed, but also wanted to know who was speaking at the same time.
“Display meeting documents simultaneously with the discussion.”
“Ensure screen share of printed materials.”
“Better video, audio, and identification of those speaking. At times it was hard to know who was speaking since there was a shot of a document and members of the board were talking over the one shot of the document.”
Many thought electronic meetings should be limited
Many thought electronic meetings should be limited for only certain types of meetings.
“Electronic meetings perhaps should address small items and urgent issues, but not the ‘big ticket’ items like a proposed 28% budget increase. These larger items need more public scrutiny and more open and honest communication to the residents (with appropriate justification).”
“I think electronic meetings should be strictly limited to timely actions. If this power exists because of emergency scenarios, only things that have an emergency angle or at least a tangible expiry date should be eligible for vote during these meetings.”
“There’s no way to give all of the public proper access to electronic meetings. Should only be used in situations such as a pandemic.”
“I do not want to see electronic meetings permitted at the local level. If the focus turns to ‘improving’ electronic meetings, we will end up with a statute allowing electronic meetings at the local level in all instances.”
“STOP electronic meetings. Too much opportunity to subvert the will of the people and even further violate the Open Meetings laws.”
Access to meeting materials not consistent
More than half of those taking the survey, 47 respondents, thought the public had adequate access to meeting materials of the electronic meetings, such as an agenda and board packet that contained details of what was to be voted upon. Several noted a packet of information was available online on the government’s website before the meeting.
But those without access to an agenda or board materials ahead of time complained it made it difficult to follow along.
“The meeting material was not made available online. The board members do not speak clearly into their microphones and do not explain in detail what each agenda item means or entails,” said the observer of the Ridgetop meeting.
A journalist who reported on a Milan city board meeting held on Zoom said the public did not have adequate access to the agenda and board packet information. “Allowing the public to download or view the materials would have been very helpful.” He added that many of the boards he covered “simply were not prepared to make documents available electronically, allow public comment, etc.”
A journalist covering the Anderson County school board noted a lack of meeting documents. “It was a budget meeting and nothing was made available prior to the meeting.”
The Hamilton County Board of Education’s agenda and documents are usually available on its website before the meeting, said a news reporter who covers the meetings, but for the electronic meeting she observed, they were not.
Likewise, a news reporter covering the Bradley County Commission said although the meeting agenda and documents are usually posted online in advance, they weren’t for the electronic meeting. “As of 2:20 p.m., today’s noon meeting agenda still has not been posted. A notice that the meeting would be live streamed was on the county commission’s Facebook page, but the meeting agenda wasn’t posted there either. I received an email with the agenda, as I do ahead of each meeting.”
Someone who watched the Crossville City Council meeting using Zoom said meeting material was available prior to the meeting, but you would have had to get it in advance. “During the meeting only the agenda is also on the screen, no details/other materials.”
One citizen who monitored the Loudon County Commission said the public couldn’t get access to materials given to the commission in the meeting unless they filed a public records request. “Whenever new budget amendments or other (new) materials is furnished to commission, the same information should be posted to the county government website to reflect the new material to commission.”
Access to live video or audio and recordings afterward
In 49 of the meetings reported, the public had access to live video or audio of the meeting.
In 15 of the 22 others, the observers said that either an audio or video recording was available afterward, most of them available on the government entity’s website. Some were unsure if a recording was available.
One who monitored the Morristown Utility Systems board said an audio recording of the utility board’s meeting ultimately was available, but not on the utility’s website and only when she called and requested it.
“The utility office was closed to the public so I made an appointment to pick up a flash drive of the audio recording. This was extremely and unnecessarily inefficient. While there may be unusual situations where a governing does not have and/or cannot use a website of a related entity within the county, I think it should be required that audio and/or video of in-person and electronic meetings be posted on a website rather than have to be requested.”
A news reporter who wanted to report on the the budget commission meeting of the Montgomery County Commission said neither the public or the media were allowed to attend the phone conference, and she had difficulty locating a recording of the meeting afterward. “I searched the web, could not locate it. I had to send in an open records form to obtain one of the meetings.”
A journalist who covered the City of Covington’s BOMA reported that full board meetings were live streamed, but not the board’s committee meetings.
Nine meetings that were reported in the survey were held in person. Of those held in person, three allowed the public to attend and three others allowed the press, but not the public. The rest didn’t allow anyone but the government officials into the meeting. In all but one of the in-person meetings, a video feed or TV broadcast was available.
Public comment ‘still being worked out’
There were mixed reviews of public comment periods in electronic meetings. Some governing bodies allowed people to email in comments; others allowed members to speak directly to the governing body by patching them into a video conference or by phone call.
Others did not have a public comment period, even when it was usually part of their agenda.
Overall, comments seemed to indicate some governing bodies were still working out technical issues related to public comment or the best way to accomplish it an remote format.
“Often, two to four people comment at in-person meetings. Figuring out how to be recognized in order to make a comment during the electronic meeting was very difficult,” said an observer of the Hamblen County Commissioner meeting.
“The public could send in emails, but the emails were not read into the official minutes of the meeting,” said another about a Germantown BOMA meeting.
“I feel that they should have read the comments at the meeting. Instead, they just said they would give them to the aldermen prior to the meeting,” said another person who reported on the Germantown meeting.
“Public wasn’t allowed to view or comment in person. The Committee also failed to read the public comments aloud during the meeting,” said an observer of a Sumner County Commission committee meeting.
“A representative of the League of Women Voters and I were able to speak or ask questions near the end of the meeting The regular meeting requirement to sign in was waived. No problems came up,” said an observer of the Davidson County Election Commission meeting.
“The public had a little over an hour to submit comments via email or phone (from 4 to 5:15 p.m. prior to the meeting) then the comments were read during the meeting by a staff member,” said a journalist covering a Shelby County Board of Education meeting. “If the comments went over the time limit, the full text was shared with board members.”
One person who had signed up to comment at a zoning committee meeting said she was never unmuted so she could speak. The meeting host told her that her Zoom settings were incorrect, but she said doubted this because she had been on previous Zoom calls with no problems.
“They are requiring public to sign in ahead of time and then they are patched in one by one during the public comment session and given the same time and other restraints as in person,” said a journalist who covered the Chattanooga City Council. “They began this in the second virtual meeting and it’s gone smoothly since.”
“If public asked in advance to have a link to the meeting, they could participate. I was the only member of the public that asked for a link,” said a citizen who patched in to a Lebanon City Council meeting.
A news reporter covering the Bradley County Commission said this: “There was nothing posted on either the county’s website or the county commission’s Facebook page regarding public comment for the meeting. In a previous electronic ‘test’ meeting, the chairman mentioned a plan to allow the public to post questions that the commission’s administrative assistant would then relay to commissioners, but I didn’t see that happen today. In addition, in going down the agenda, the chairman went from ‘No. 11 Agenda Items’ to ‘No. 13 Announcements,’ skipping over ‘No. 12 Communications’ from the audience.
“Any comments from the public would have been gathered individually by each alderman,” said an observer of the Livingston City Council.
Some governing bodies seemed to be working on how to create a viable public comment period.
“The first time they met there was no public comment and it still needs to be ironed out a bit, but they have encouraged citizens to email/write to them,” said a reporter covering the meetings of the Knoxville City Council in early April.