Unmute Yourself! Public Comment Pushing Through The Pandemic
From city hall meetings to federal hearings, the coronavirus has at times widened the public discourse — and at other times made it more difficult.
This post was updated Tuesday, Sept. 29, at 1:15 p.m.
The COVID-19 pandemic is changing life dramatically, forcing much of it to happen online.
Public engagement is no different. From city hall meetings to federal hearings, to a marathon, 29-hour Miami-Dade School District board meeting earlier this month, the coronavirus has at times widened the public discourse, and sometimes narrowed it. (Did anyone really listen to the 2 a.m. comment at the school board meeting?)
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If speaking up in front of packed public chambers required steely nerves, today’s virtual meetings call for some technical savvy — and the ability to unmute yourself.
'She's muted herself'
A typical Fort Lauderdale city commission meeting before the pandemic included a lot of passionate public comment and back-and-forth with Mayor Dean Trantalis.
Now the mayor is the one at City Hall, and the same group of passionate residents call in through audio and video software.
And some moments are easier for people to connect than others. During the city's final public budget hearing in mid-September, city leaders had trouble getting multiple people on the line.
"She was unmuted and the last star-6 just muted her phone again. So it's showing on our end that she's muted herself," city staff told the mayor when one speaker was called.
The mute-unmute dance goes on. And on.
Back during in-person meetings, Paul Chettle spoke frequently. At a virtual meeting, the mayor kept popping in and responding to speakers. Chettle reminded him that's not the point of public comment.
"You know, I don't care what you say to me, mayor... there's nothing that you can say that would insult me. But I think that you've got to remember that it's very, very difficult for members of the public to get up the courage to participate in a budget hearing," Chettle said. "And I think that it's just so easy as an elected official to listen and to think about it and to recognize that you don't have a monopoly on all the good ideas."
In some cases, there's less public comment happening now than there was before the pandemic. Where before there were commonly 10 speakers on a particular issue, now there's a handful for an entire Fort Lauderdale commission meeting.
'What happened to the 20?'
In Miami-Dade County, depending on which side of the dais you sit, the new virtual town hall is either a little too full, or a little too empty.
At a Miami-Dade County parks meeting this month to decide whether to recommend leasing land for a theme park near rare pine rockland, County Commissioner Jose 'Pepe' Diaz was told 20 people had signed up to speak. So the chairman agreed to give each speaker two minutes.
Fifty-three minutes later, there were still speakers. Diaz asked how many people were left in the queue.
"About 20," the clerk told him.
"What happened to the 20 when … we closed the meeting?" Diaz asked. It turned out registering to speak hadn't actually ended.
And until recently, the Army Corps of Engineers was not using Zoom like the rest of the world — for security reasons as the Corps is part of the Department of Defense.
In virtual meetings, you had to post questions in a webinar chat box, and someone from the Corps would read them out loud.
By the end of a meeting on a plan to protect the Miami-Dade coast from hurricane storm surge, it was nearly impossible to gauge how the public really felt about the plan.
"That format doesn't pass the laugh test for genuine public involvement in the process," said Mike Collins, a former South Florida Water Management District governing board member.
Collins got to tell the Corps that himself because in mid-September the Army Corps of Engineers made the switch to Zoom.
What a difference a month makes
In the city of Miami, the public comment process has been working maybe a little too well for some city leaders.
After protests against police violence swept the country, people in Miami took aim at a plan that would add more than 30 real-time cameras and a license plate reader to Wynwood. The data would be sent directly to the police department.
For that meeting, lots of people called in to voice opposition. So many, in fact, that the sheer volume took over the discussion.
Some commissioners didn’t like how organized it was, and they accused people of reading from a script. Which some of them were. As is their right during the public comment period — and which is a long-standing practice used by advocates and activists.
Miami Commission Chair Keon Hardemon had some ideas about how to deal with the volume of speakers.
"Florida statutes, they allow commissions to limit public comment so that you can carry on with business" he said. "You can’t have so much public comment that it limits your ability to carry on with business as a city or as a county, whatever it might be. So I’ve seen in other cities like Seattle, where they have just as much as 25 minutes of public comment."
The big vote on adding cameras and a license plate tracker was pushed back until a month later, in July. The callers felt victorious, and it was trending a bit on social media.
In the meeting a month later, the cameras were approved — and nobody called to complain.
'Another Nazi salute, and you're out'
While the rest of South Florida has been meeting virtually, the Palm Beach County Commission has spent a lot of the pandemic still hearing from the public … in person.
One woman was so upset about a dispute about comment cards that she walked up to the microphone and yelled at the commissioners, while another started throwing Nazi salutes.
"We’re not going to tolerate Nazi salutes here as well, so, you do another Nazi salute, and you're out," Mayor David Kerner told her. "I need you to leave the chamber.”
This was the most extreme example of a series of unhinged outbursts — a lot of them based on conspiracy theories. Another woman took advantage of the physical presence of the commissioners to walk right up to the dais and hand them papers challenging their authority to mandate masks, announcing to each that "You are served."
Kerner told her not to approach the dais again.
"Please get off of here and get back to the microphone" he said. "If you have something to give to us, either give it to the clerk or the county staff."
The mask ordinance stood.
Shady Lady and a guy from Connecticut
In the Keys, commenting at public meetings before the pandemic sometimes required a 100-mile drive. Holding meetings remotely has allowed people to chime in from wherever they are.
Some have interesting Zoom handles — like one commenter at a Monroe County commission meeting from the summer when they were discussing new rules for vacation rentals.
"The next speaker is Shady Lady," the county IT staffer running the Zoom session announced.
Then the speaker chimed in.
"Hi, my name's Charlie," he said. "I own property in Lower Matecumbe. I am a full-time resident part of the year down there."
Some of the people commenting from far away don't own property in the Keys. The Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board is elected by local voters. This summer, they were considering the first U.S. trial of genetically modified mosquitoes.
And they heard from some people who are definitely not local voters — and, in some cases, maybe have never even been to the Keys.
"I'm from Connecticut and I'm a world traveler and I'd like to spend some time in Florida and I just want to make sure to let you know that I don't consent to the GMO mosquitoes," said one speaker. "I'm not interested in having these released anywhere in the world."
Board chair Phil Goodman responded.
"Thank you for your participation and your comments all the way from Connecticut. Thank you."
At a later meeting, the Mosquito Control Board approved the trial of genetically modified mosquitoes, 4-1.