Virtual Future: Post-COVID, City Hall Will Likely Never Be the Same, and That’s Good

If there’s one positive to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is and will be that Everett City government has been propelled quicker than ever imagined into Mayor Carlo DeMaria’s vision for a Virtual City Hall.

Mayor DeMaria has for a number of years imagined City Hall to be a revitalized place where residents can conduct business remotely, in more compact spaces and without the grand offices and workspaces that he refers to as “energy eaters.” It was a goal and aspiration that went front and center last January in his State of the City Speech – when he highlighted a plan to move forward on Virtual City Hall. Within days, the Legal Department had rolled out online hearings for certain violations and it was seen as a great first step forward.

About a month later, COVID-19 hit and suddenly Virtual City Hall wasn’t a vision, but a necessity, and the early successes are not likely to go away when the pandemic abates.

“We’ve been doing this and thinking about it for a long time,” said Mayor DeMaria this week. “We were rolling it out when the pandemic hit and we were up and running quick. Some cities still aren’t doing any of this. We were working on it already, and so we had a jump on being able to roll it out so quickly. We’re working out the quirks, but I think it’s going well…A lot of bad has come from the pandemic, but there is some good with this.

“We’ve been virtual a long time and we want to make sure as we move forward everything you can do in the building, you can also do on the computer,” said the mayor.

When he made his speech in January, saying “Technology advancements have enabled us to become more efficient and more responsive to our residents,” he could have never imagined the City could achieve many of his goals by May.

Yet it is what has happened.

Already, with the collaboration of the IT Department there have been very successful regular Planning Board, Zoning Board and School Committee meetings via Zoom or other online platforms – with votes and public participation happening. Likewise, Mayor DeMaria hosted a successful Town Hall online in early April. It has brought a new light as to what community engagement might mean post-COVID.

“There will always be a presence of a building for City Hall to have meetings, but we are also having record numbers in attendance at our Planning Board and Zoning Board meetings online,” he said. “We’ll always have spaces for our meetings but as we now know and see because of the pandemic, people can be engaged online and there is an efficiency with that. People don’t want to go to City Hall after work. They want to tap into their phone or iPad and see what’s going on. They can be involved in that way.”

Planning Director Tony Sousa said having live online Zoom and Facebook meetings have been eye opening. Like the mayor, he noted that they have had lots of viewers at their meetings of late, and the format is something that many developers, architects and engineers were already doing in the industry.

“From the applicants end, we hear from attorneys, architects and engineers – they’ve done virtual meetings prior,” said Sousa. “It’s not foreign to them. They’ve been able to participate, provide the necessary documents to show and on that I think we’ve done a good job…Things we’re looking at now is how to adapt this to long-term use. This is all consistent with the Virtual City Hall concept, and it’s something we’ve been talking about for a while. We’ve now done it by fire, but it has been in our mindset already. Some cities and towns have lagged, but we’ve been able to keep up.”

Sousa said they could very easily accept online testimony from applicants and even from those in the public who cannot make a meeting. He said there have been times when developers fly in from the West Coast for a meeting, only to encounter a snowstorm or the lack of a quorum. All that could be solved with simply incorporating the Zoom online format into an in-person meeting.

Within his office, he said they have streamlined activities, such as meetings with consultants, and will continue that afterward too.

Building Inspector Jim Soper said they have had online permitting for some time, but they have learned how to make their operations even more streamlined and quick. In the past, he said they would have meetings around the conference table with 10 people. That, he said he’s learned, isn’t necessary.

“It’s more efficient to set up a Zoom meeting and it’s done safely, efficiently and easily,” he said. “Everyone around the conference table, that’s the old way – bricks and mortar. I can do that with a big expanded screen to see plans and we can talk. I always thought we were a very permitting-friendly community here. However, this pandemic has required government to find ways to skip over the troubles and get to the part of success with people. It’s streamlined.”

For those trying to use City government, that’s also gotten easier, he said. While permitting is down because of construction bans, the work that is being done is permitted more and more electronically. Likewise, many inspections – especially electrical inspections – are being done remotely with video. An experienced electrician looking for a routine inspection can easily show an inspector what needs to be seen for a sign off, though harder jobs would still need an in-person inspection.

“Sometimes we get in our own way in doing things the same way year after year,” he said. “Sometimes it’s not as efficient to go around to all these communities to get permits in person. As a contractor, once you see it work a couple of times and it’s successful and the City is responsive, you probably won’t ever leave the job site to come get a permit in person again.”

Soper said they hope to be able to create an app for ISD permitting in Everett, so that it can be even easier to file permits, talk online via Facetime with an Inspector or get documents that are needed.

“It’s a new way of doing business and it’s good,” he said. “It forced us to be even more efficient – and it’s made everyone more efficient.”

At the 3-1-1 offices, Director Chad Luongo said he sees all kinds of possibilities he hadn’t thought of before the pandemic. Their service has gone from getting several hundred calls a week mostly for potholes and tree trimming to getting 800 calls a week on things like health care and virus testing.

And most of the work is being done from home.

In the post-COVID world, both Luongo and Mayor DeMaria see the 3-1-1 operations being moved outside of City Hall, with workers only coming in on certain days and, thus, freeing up space for other things.

Luongo had started doing virtual parking ticket hearings before the pandemic, and did about 10 a week. While ticketing has slowed down, and so have all hearings, he expects them to really move online after COVID due to more people being familiar with technology. In fact, in-person parking hearings might not return, he said.

“The virtual hearings have slowed down, but once things have opened, I expect all parking hearings are going to be done virtually because we can’t have 30 people waiting in the lobby for a parking hearing. An in-person parking hearing may be a thing of the past.”

The bottom line is that City departments had expected to move to a virtual service, but nowhere near this quickly. Most all said the pandemic has taught them that they can move faster and the public will respond with using the technology if it works. In Everett, which has prided itself on being a leader in the realm of trying new things, creating a new City Hall has endless possibilities.

That’s where DeMaria said his vision only starts. He said they had just started drawing up ideas for a re-design of City Hall before the pandemic, and that will continue, but at a faster pace.

By using more remote activity, it could free up space in City Hall, whereby they could cross-train employees to perform several tasks in one location. Then, City Hall could take on a whole new role.

DeMaria said he sees it as a place where social service organizations can locate, maybe retail if possible and even temporary housing for people in between eviction and other housing options – potentially even homeless high school students.

“I’ve always seen this building as an energy eater providing one service when it could be a space for 50 services,” he said. “The building will always be open. However, being the City Hall traditional space is to be determined. This can be a place with large community spaces, function spaces and social service agency spaces. These social service agencies are going to have a hard time paying rent after this is over. You may see City Hall be a space for these agencies too.”

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