The City Commission Goes Online with Zoom Meetings. Next Stop: Making it Permanent for Residents to Call in.
Call it a sign of the times. Like numerous other private and public gatherings across the city, meetings of the Coral Gables City Commission have gone virtual. Thanks to the COVID-driven suspension of state laws that requires a quorum to be physically present. So, the commission launched its first online Zoom meeting March 31, followed by a second online Zoom meeting April 21.
For those readers who have not already been dragged into a Zoom meeting, it is a software platform that allows you to see all the other participants on your screen, each sitting in front of their computer.
Participants appear in small boxes that fill the screen like a grid. When one person speaks, their image fills the screen. When the number of participants grows too large, the grid becomes a line of images, like a film strip you can scroll.
The first City Commission Zoom meeting was a short one, dealing mostly with urgent issues – such as renewing city insurance policies – while testing the system. “It was the first time we had done a completely digital meeting. For a first time it went better than expected, with no major glitches,” says Raimundo Rodulfo, head of the city’s IT department.
As with any in-person city commission meeting, City Clerk Billy Urquia moderated the public input – including registering citizens as they called in to make sure they could address the elected officials. The biggest problem was how the system responded to people who were talking, putting them center screen. “It’s a little like Hollywood Squares, where you have all the squares [with people in them] but the one who is speaking becomes the presenter at the time,” says Urquia. That led to a little confusion, with people popping in and out of the main screen. “One of the things that we improved on [the second] time was to put everyone on mute, so they didn’t all speak at once.”
By controlling the mutes for participants, says Urquia, you can avoid what is called “Zoom Bombing,” where people can simply yell out, or take center screen and make obscene gestures. Indeed, by the second virtual meeting – which climbed from 57 the first time to the maximum 100 participants – the flow had smoothed out.
The fact that the city was so adept at adopting the new technology was due partly to chance, with a nod to Commissioner Jorge Fors. In December, Fors suggested that residents be allowed to address the commissioners via Zoom – since it is often difficult for people to appear at City Hall during their bi-monthly Tuesday meetings.
“One of my priorities has always been public access, giving residents more opportunities to connect and voice their opinions,” says Fors. “The technology was there… I proposed it, and everyone was onboard. And it was, serendipitously, right before this crisis developed. So the city had done its homework and we were ready to go.” Next stop: Upgrading the technology to handle up to 1,000 participants.