Dogs leaping into a city councilor’s lap. Crunching on tortilla chips without hitting mute. Kids yelling and partners doing chores in the background.
Eight months into the coronavirus pandemic, public officials in Durango are settling into virtual public meetings on the Zoom platform.
And the pros and cons are becoming increasingly clear.
Melissa Youssef, a Durango city councilor, said members of the council are still navigating how to interact with each other without the subliminal body language messages that are lost in virtual meetings.
“It’s hard to butt in and have your voice heard,” Youssef said.
But the council has adapted to “unwritten rules” over time about speaking up on Zoom meetings, she said. For example, if someone has a muted microphone, and they unmute, it means they are ready to speak.
“As a team, we’ve gotten better at making sure we ask if anyone wants to speak,” Youssef said.
Over the past several months, the Durango City Council has made several important decisions for the city over Zoom, including hiring a new city manager, José Madrigal, and working on finalizing the new budget.
Amber Blake, assistant city manager, said it is “more important now than ever to be very cognizant of the words you’re using,” because it’s a challenge to “read the room” over Zoom.
“It feels like people are interrupting each other when they really aren’t,” said City Councilor Kim Baxter. The dialogue just doesn’t flow as naturally over Zoom, she said.
Impact on public commentsFor Youssef, it is more difficult for public officials to establish trust with constituents over Zoom than in person. And people who want to make public comments don’t have the power of eye contact and human connection with city councilors. Unlike city officials, members of the public don’t have their cameras activated during meetings and appear as a black screen, maybe with their name or a phone number, she said.
“It’s not a good substitute for this kind of work – I miss the one-on-one live interaction,” Youssef said.
Kristen Mischker of Durango said when the City Council or La Plata County commissioners don’t enable video for public comments, it “dehumanizes the public input.”
“It’s harder to cut off or limit public participation when people are there in person,” and there is a benefit to “seeing how your comment is received by the audience,” Mischker said. Like-minded people can connect and discuss current events and issues facing the city, she said.
But county commission meetings have not allowed private messaging between participants.
La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff said county commission meetings have seen an increase in public attendance since going to Zoom. But some aspects of in-person meetings can’t be replicated through the virtual platform, she said.
The chat feature on Zoom is not part of the formal record or deliberation process, and Westendorff said she and the other commissioners don’t want people to be confused about the best way to formally comment.
“We can’t absorb comments through the chat,” Westendorff said.
Enabling the video feature for public commenters would also put a strain on the bandwidth capacity of the Zoom meeting given the number of participants who are joining, she said.
But the black box with a name or phone number “makes no difference in the way I receive public comments,” Westendorff said.
Access to public meetingsCity officials, including Blake and City Councilor Barbara Noseworthy, have noticed higher participation in public meetings since they became virtual.
“You don’t have to be sitting in the council chamber until midnight to make a public comment,” Blake said.
If residents are helping their children with online learning or cooking dinner, they can do that until the agenda item they are interested in comes up, Blake said.
Madrigal said speaking to a computer might be less nerve-wracking to members of the public than speaking at a podium in City Council chambers, which might encourage more public comments.
“It makes it a little less formal,” he said.
However, the virtual public meetings are only convenient if people have access to reliable internet, Blake said.
In response, Durango City Council is now reading written public feedback during its meetings, so that it is in the public record. Before, written comments were delivered to councilors but not read aloud during the meetings.
City government also provides occasional community updates about the state of the coronavirus outbreak in the community. Those updates are recorded and posted to the city’s website and YouTube. The videos include sign language translation, courtesy of Dian Jenkins and with support from the Commission for the Deaf, Hard of Hearing and DeafBlind’s Rural Interpreting Services Project.
According to Jenkins, there are at least 20 deaf adults in the Durango that use sign language interpretation services. But the service is not yet provided for public meetings, though the company Zoom does offer a captioning service.
Blake said it is possible people who are hearing impaired have a harder time reading lips during virtual meetings.
During the coronavirus pandemic, “we are very fortunate to have a technology platform that allows us to communicate and engage with the public,” Blake said. “Telephone town halls would be a lot more challenging.”
Residents in quarantine or self-isolation are still able to participate with Zoom, Noseworthy added.
Zoom mishapsHolding public meetings from home has also led to comically informal moments in a typically formal setting.
“Everyone has a Zoom mishap story,” Youssef said.
City councilors were checking in before the start of a public meeting to ensure their visual and audio components were working properly. Youssef said she thought her audio was turned off, but she was crunching on some tortilla chips over her microphone.
“You have to be careful,” she said.
Madrigal has had to get up during meetings to pull the shades in his office to prevent the setting sun from blinding him.
“All of a sudden the light flashes into your eyes and hits you,” Madrigal said laughing.
Baxter’s new puppy will fly down the staircase and leap onto her lap from time to time, she said.
“Everybody smiles when it happens,” Baxter said.
Noseworthy wanted to speak up during a meeting, but felt compelled to wait as a cleaner loudly vacuumed in the hall. Meanwhile, her husband was performing acrobatics to avoid being on camera, she said.
The places with the best lighting in her house are near the kitchen, and if her husband has to cook or do dishes, Noseworthy has to move to a darker room in the house to avoid distracting background noise.
With two school-age children learning remotely at home, Blake said her family has had to work on mutual respect and understanding when they are all working and meeting virtually from their house.
Meeting virtually has been an “interesting journey,” she said.
Backgrounds on Zoom break the monotonySure, public officials could set up their laptops in their study with rows of books in the background showing off how smart they are, but what fun is that? In the age of Zoom, people can set their own backgrounds.
Youssef has several backgrounds she can choose from and display during public meetings. Most of them are landscapes from Durango, but one is a photo of a riverscape – a “special place where we escape to as a family,” Youssef said.
Using a personal background on the Zoom video display “helps to mix it up and generate conversation,” she said.
And as the days grow shorter, Youssef said she has also played with different lighting to make sure her face stays visible throughout the meeting.
One member of the public commented that a Durango city councilor did not appear “transparent” because his or her face was hidden by shadows, Youssef said. City councilors now work to stage themselves to ensure people can see them.
Blake has also rotated between different backgrounds, including one of the Durango trail system and a light-colored living room, which she said she chose because it doesn’t create a halo effect around her like other Zoom backgrounds.
The assistant city manager also purchased different lighting to make herself more visible on screen at night.
Will Zoom meetings continue?Members of the Durango city government and La Plata County commissioners anticipate a Zoom component to public meetings beyond the coronavirus pandemic.
“I see the need to go back to some kind of in-person meeting, but I also see the benefits and convenience of Zoom,” Noseworthy said.
But Youssef said she hopes in-person, physical interactions continue when coronavirus case numbers decline in La Plata County.
While in-person meetings have benefits for the public, Madrigal said the ability to meet virtually has been helpful for city staff. They use a platform called Microsoft Teams, which allows multiple people to edit a document or spreadsheet in real time during the meeting.
For Madrigal, the feature has been particularly helpful when working on items like the city budget.
Overall, Zoom is a “new tool that wasn’t available before that is a good addition for public participants,” Westendorff said.