Looking at the News: To Zoom or Not to Zoom, It Seems to Be the Question

The country’s sudden experiment with online meetings is one with ups and downs in Everett.

There have been some real bad meetings, and there have been some really good meetings. However, the rush to get back to normal and meet in person may be a mistake that could lose the tremendous increase in citizen participation during the pandemic. Rushing to be face-to-face and feel “normal” is something many elected officials have been chomping at the bit to do for several months – but until technology can be adjusted to have as good a meeting experience online as one has in-person, then the rush might be hasty.

At the outset of the pandemic, a curious e-mail came into my inbox from an obscure government services department at the State House. I had gotten exactly one e-mail from this department prior to this one in 10 years. The e-mail indicated Gov. Charlie Baker had issued an executive order to allow open meetings to take place online during the pandemic emergency. It was a footnote to the major issues that were hitting the state at that moment, but it gave birth to the modern online or hybrid-online public meeting – something that City leaders in Everett and beyond should not be so quick to dispatch to the history books. In fact, though not on purpose, cities like Everett might have found the answer to getting more people involved in the process of City government – if that is indeed a goal and I think it is for the most part.

A true silver lining to the pandemic has been the amazing uptick in participation with online and civic meetings in Everett over the last six months. Almost immediately, the School Committee, Planning Board and Zoning Board – among some others – took up the idea of a Zoom public meeting. I approached it with skepticism, but I tuned into the April School Committee meeting and found rich information and a smooth delivery of critical happenings to parents and students. Parents were able to tune in while they cared for their children, cooked dinner, or even took a break at their second (or third) job.

At the Planning Board and Zoning Board, the meetings took shape very quickly as well, and developers were able to forge ahead with projects and development in convenient and informative meetings. Members of both boards quickly adjusted to the format, and while it wasn’t the ideal way of doing things, they got them done. Soon, the public got involved in those meetings, and meetings were helpful in that one could see the plans “shared” on the computer screen, and input could be given live on video, in a “chat” or via e-mail. Debates unfolded from one living room to another about the future of cars in the City, or how building design standards should be implemented.

Developers told me they were very impressed with how Everett had moved forward with development review despite the pandemic – way further ahead than other cities of its size around the country. One local permitting attorney said this new format was the wave of the future, while a national developer said they would consider it another mark of a positive development environment to have the ability to attend online. One of the largest developers in the nation said they had put most projects on hold nationally during the pandemic, but had gone ahead with Everett due to the success of their online meetings and public input processes.

Quickly, I realized this was the new way to communicate to school communities, development teams, City officials, neighbors, abutters, the general public and other stakeholders across the community. School Committee members said last week they often get more than 1,000 views of their Zoom meetings, sometimes as high as 10,000 views, and at one of their spring meetings they drew almost 2,000 people viewing the meeting live. That’s like a Homecoming football crowd!

The City Council has been slow to adopt the online world. They were one of the last to have online meetings, and they have been the first to push for in-person meetings at all costs. It’s noble and gives some sense of stability, but these meetings have not been very successful.

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