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How local governments have adapted meetings during pandemic
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The Hall County School District board of education meets via video on Monday, June 8. - photo by Nathan Berg

When the COVID-19 pandemic put a hold on many in-person gatherings, local governments had to find new ways to engage the public, with many moving to online meetings.

The pandemic came at a busy time of year for local governments, too. Most governments’ fiscal years restart July 1, so they finalize budgets in the spring.

Governments are required by law to allow community members to view and participate in meetings. For Hall County and many of its municipalities, the first meetings from the onset of the pandemic were held to announce a state of emergency or address the government’s response to the virus.

The Gainesville City Council, for example, met March 20 to adopt a resolution encouraging people to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to slow the spread of the virus. It was the city’s first meeting on Facebook Live.

“That was our first jump into it, almost out of necessity,” City Manager Bryan Lackey said.

Gainesville continued to stream meetings and work sessions on its Facebook page throughout the pandemic. Now, as some in-person gatherings resume, meetings will no longer be streamed live, although the voting meetings will be video recorded and posted online shortly after the meetings end. 

Officials have been missing the face-to-face interactions with community members, Lackey said, and hearing comments or questions in-person during a meeting makes it easier to respond immediately.

“If people are able to contact us right after looking at (the video), we’re able to be more responsive because if you do send a comment in the middle of the meeting, we have a tough time responding to it,” Lackey said.

The city kept meetings open to the public during the pandemic if they wanted to attend in person or comment. 

Declining live viewership for the meeting videos showed demand was slipping, Lackey said, and the live stream required extra time and resources. But as the city plans website upgrades, remote participation or viewing options are still an option for the future, he said. 

Hall County has been live streaming its meetings on the home page of the county website and has used the GoToMeeting software to allow community members to participate. Viewers can indicate in the program that they would like to comment on an item or during a public hearing. If they do not have internet access or would prefer to use the phone, they can call a designated number before the meeting item, then be included live in the meeting for commissioners to hear their input over the phone. 

Brian Stewart, the county’s digital media specialist, said when planning how to adapt meetings during the pandemic, staff asked, “How can we, to the best of our ability, allow the public to participate in every way that they normally could, as if we they were in person, but do that from home?”

Meetings had previously been closed to the public for in-person attendance, but now, people have the option to participate from home or go to the Hall County Government Center, where the meeting room has been set up for social distancing.

Stewart said live streaming has sometimes required additional staffing. While the county has not hired more people for the online meetings, county Management Information Systems employees have been helping.

“It takes a bit more manpower in the back room to run the meetings. Ordinarily, when we were just recording video, it was just me back there,” Stewart said. “But now, if it’s a busier meeting there could be a crew of five or six people back there.”

County spokeswoman Katie Crumley said that while officials have not decided how long the live streams will continue, making them more permanent is an option.

“While things may not look exactly as they have the past few months, there are some things we are very interested in maintaining if possible, and the live stream certainly is one of those,” Crumley said.

Flowery Branch has also been using GoToMeeting and will return to in-person meetings June 18. City Clerk Vickie Short said the program allowed people to view what they would see on the screen at in-person meeting, as well as provide input.

“It’s pretty much the same, with the exception of us just not being there together,” Short said.

Lula has been holding meetings over Zoom, publicizing log-in information and providing an email address for people to submit questions or comments.  

 “What we’ve been doing works pretty well for us. That much we’re very appreciative of,” City Manager Dennis Bergin said.

The technology has also been useful for scheduling meetings by providing more flexibility because people can participate from anywhere, Bergin said. The City Council and staff members will be able to use it for committee meetings moving forward, he said. Videoconferencing has also proven helpful for larger meetings, including a district Georgia Municipal Association meeting that saw higher attendance from people who may not have been able to travel before, Bergin said.

The Hall County Board of Education has also been using Zoom. For some meetings, board members have been together in person at the school board offices, and for others, they have been participating remotely. But remote access has been allowed for community members either way, according to Kevin Bales, Hall County Schools’ assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. 

Bales said meetings have been streamed on YouTube and viewership has averaged about 25 to 30 people. Community members could email in questions or comments during board meetings.

Bales said that while live streaming was not widely used before the pandemic, its future use is being discussed. 

“Just like we’re looking instructional-wise, I think there’s certain things as we move forward that we’ll have to seriously consider, that we did during this time of pandemic, and I think that’s one of the pieces that we have for conversation,” Bales said. 

Videoconferencing could be especially useful for professional development, Bales said, although in many cases in-person meetings may still work better. 

“As you’re moving around and you’re meeting with different individuals, it sure doesn’t feel the same way as it does when you’re using Zoom and you’re captivated at your desk or your house. … Just because you can have a Zoom meeting doesn’t mean you should,” he said. 

Gainesville City Schools has also used Zoom for its meetings, with community members able to submit comments or questions through the Zoom question panel. School system spokeswoman Lynn Jones said the system will continue to monitor public health guidelines as it considers future meetings. 

Clermont Mayor James Nix said Clermont Town Council’s meeting place, the Clermont Chattahoochee Center, provides enough space for social distancing, so Clermont has not switched to virtual meetings.

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