Virtual government meetings are set to become a lasting legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic long after a state emergency order enabling them ends, as the public demand for the increased accessibility and transparency continues.

The City of Sandy Springs and citizen-review groups in Buckhead are among the previously in-person-only bodies that say they intend to continue offering a video option for meetings by either live-stream or teleconference.

A screenshot of Sandy Springs’ first-ever live-stream City Council meeting, held on March 17, 2020. The meetings of the council and other Sandy Springs government bodies will continue to be available on video. (File)

Before the pandemic, many local governments offered live-stream video of city council meetings and similar major gatherings that anyone also could attend in person. As the pandemic gripped the state in March 2020, governments faced the dilemma of the health dangers of in-person meetings and the demands of continuing to operate — and all while following the Georgia Open Meetings Act, which guarantees public access. Even governments that already broadcast video of their meetings had to suddenly adjust to a totally remote environment.

Under state law, Gov. Brian Kemp’s emergency declaration permitted governments to meet virtually by such methods as Zoom or phone-in teleconferencing. That order has been repeatedly renewed and remained in effect through June 30, when Kemp ended it, essentially saying the main crisis is over. The same day, he issued a new emergency order that is far more limited to specific recovery and treatment operations, which runs through July 30. The new order does not specifically address virtual government meetings, but Governor’s Office spokesperson Mallory Blount pointed to the law that allows governments to meet in alternative locations during a state of emergency.

Despite the ongoing emergency orders, some public bodies have already returned to in-person meetings, while others have not and have a decision to make about virtual options.

The City of Dunwoody is one of those that for years have offered live and recorded video of government meetings. “We will continue to do that after the emergency order is lifted,” said City spokesperson Jennifer Boettcher. “We may consider additional live-streaming options as needs arise.”

The City of Brookhaven prior to the pandemic used a video streaming platform called MinuteTraq, but has shifted to Zoom meetings during the emergency. The City plans to return to in-person meetings when its own emergency declaration ends Aug. 18, according to spokesperson Burke Brennan, and likely will cease using Zoom for broadcasting standard meetings like City Council. But virtual meetings may stick around for other uses.

“While the City Council and Work Session meetings will revert to in-person, we will be utilizing virtual meetings when virtual meetings will be more effective or efficient than an in-person meeting,” said Brennan. “These will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis as we return to normal.”

For some other public bodies that were forced into their first virtual experiences, the future use ranges from “definitely” to “maybe” to “probably not.”

City of Sandy Springs

Sandy Springs was long the glaring exception among local governments’ live-streaming of meetings. The city long resisted the video broadcast of City Council and other meetings — even after moving into a $229 million, high-tech civic center in 2018 — while citing a lack of demand and anecdotal beliefs that video would make meetings run longer. The only tech option for those who could not attend in person were audio recordings that were not broadcast live and had to be requested later from the city clerk.

The pandemic changed all that, along with a year of Black Lives Matter protests that led the city to create a Diversity and Inclusion Task Force where lack of government outreach and accessibility were among the emergent concerns. Now Sandy Springs is pivoting to video.

“The City will continue to live-stream all public meetings,” said spokesperson Dan Coffer in an email. “This includes City Council, Planning Commission, Board of Appeals, zoning hearings, Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, public input meetings, etc.”

Neighborhood Planning Units

Atlanta’s Neighborhood Planning Units are citizen-review groups that advise the City on a wide range of topics, from zoning cases to food truck policies. The pandemic forced them into City-provided Zoom meetings that have been revolutionary.

“In 2020, we saw a 26% increase in meeting attendance, largely attributed to virtual access to meetings,” said the Department of City Planning’s NPU team in a written statement provided through a spokesperson.

The City will continue to offer Zoom to NPUs through at least fiscal year 2022 as well as technical support. But it will remain up to individual NPUs whether they use it or live-stream those teleconferences. It also remains to be seen how that would work in hybrid virtual and in-person meetings.

Buckhead’s NPU B is among those interested in having a virtual option. Before the pandemic, the group met at the Cathedral of St. Philip in a room with admittedly bad acoustics, and on the same night at other local NPUs, making it challenging to follow local issues. 

“Attendance at NPU B meetings has been much higher with virtual meetings available to residents,” said the group’s chair, Nancy Bliwise. She said the NPU is working with the City on the idea of virtual options and will discuss the future at its July 6 board meeting. “Essentially,” she said, “stay tuned…”

Special Public Interest Districts

Buckhead has two specialty zoning areas, called Special Public Interest Districts 9 and 12, that provide detailed design rules. Each has a Development Review Committee, both headed by Denise Starling, who is better known as executive director of the environmental nonprofit Livable Buckhead. The DRCs are obscure but relatively powerful and often review major projects in the central business district and provide that advice to the City. 

The DRCs have been meeting via Zoom without City support. Starling said there are plenty of benefits to staying virtual.

“I intend to keep doing the SPI meetings virtually unless the City tells me that this is not allowed for some reason,” Starling said in an email. “In my opinion, we get better attendance, we are better able to use technology to look at the project submittals ([like being able to] pull up Google Earth during the meeting), and interested citizens are more likely to be able to join the meeting, so to me it is an all-around better option.”

Buckhead Community Improvement District

The Buckhead Community Improvement District may be the exception to the virtual world’s new fans. The CID is another relatively little-known but powerful group. It consists of the owners of major commercial properties like Lenox Square and 3350 Peachtree that tax themselves to fund public safety, transportation and beautiful projects. Among their higher-profile work is contributing to the “Buckhead Security Plan” for improving local policing. The CID board traditionally holds early-morning meetings in a skyscraper where members of the general public never attend.

The CID was forced to meet virtually during the pandemic. In April, it switched to a hybrid meeting, with most attendees gathered at a cafe while a laptop set on a table served as a live-stream device. 

Jim Durrett, the CID’s executive director, said he has not asked the board if it wants to continue a virtual option, but expects that it will not. As to why, he cited the lack of a public role in the board’s operations. “We don’t take public comment and our agendas and minutes documenting decisions are available to the public,” he said.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.