Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
As city governance goes remote during coronavirus lockdowns, local lawmakers struggle with video tech glitches, nude Zoombombing, and other challenges.
The bearded face of Carl D’Alba, director of security for the New York City Council, appeared at the top left corner of the screen. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the New York City Council’s first virtual stated meeting,” he announced. “At this time, please place all electronic devices to vibrate and turn on your video. Please check to see that your microphone is on mute.”
So began the April 22 remote gathering of city legislators — a first in this body’s 82 years of history, and the first time since March 13 that New York’s city council had been able to officially meet at all, since the Covid-19 pandemic put an end to most in-person gatherings.
“Today will look a lot different from past stated [meeting]s, but our objective is the same,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson at a press conference before the meeting. “Our role is more important as a council than ever.”
New York was one of the later U.S. cities to convene lawmakers online, a delay that may have hampered its ability to pass critical emergency legislation for the nation’s hardest-hit city during the coronavirus crisis. But since its first virtual session, the council has been advancing a flurry of bills to protect workers, renters, and small business owners. This week, for example, the council holds a hearing on an Essential Workers Bill of Rights, which would enshrine gig workers with paid sick leave and establish new just cause firing protections.
Other cities made the leap to virtual meetings much earlier. San Francisco, for example, translated its Board of Supervisor duties online in late March. As legislators adapt to this new era of local governance via webcam, what’s emerged is a new style of virtual city council meeting that marries the tedium of a regular city council meeting with technical glitches and occasional on-screen drama. But while the medium is less imbued with ceremony, the human stakes of the legislation cities are advancing has never been more clear.
“Some state legislatures are active, but many have not been sufficiently proactive in this crisis, so local municipalities have a huge role to play,” said Philadelphia Councilmember Helen Gym. “Particularly around local issues like housing, and labor protections, and policies that relate to paid sick leave.”
The last time Philadelphia legislators could introduce new legislation in person was in a March 12 meeting; they last met together in City Hall on March 26. On April 2, the council held a virtual meeting to vote on an emergency appropriation of $85 million in relief funds, but it wasn’t until a Microsoft Teams meeting on May 1 that legislators were able to advance new bills in a virtual setting. “It’s been a slow process, and our council has moved pretty cautiously,” said Gym, who worked with colleagues to introduce a housing recovery act that extends the city’s eviction moratorium and stabilizes rents for year after the pandemic ends.
Though posting videos of city council meetings online as a supplement to meeting minutes was commonplace pre-pandemic, transitioning to an all-virtual platform introduces new challenges, and has required rule changes. In New York, for example, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued executive and emergency orders suspending portions of the state’s Public Officers Law, and the city council loosened requirements around in-person voting.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis also issued an executive order that allowed city councils to eschew physical meetings, but the Tampa Bay Times reported that the council hesitated before moving online, locked in debate over how to allow the public to comment and how to prove the identity of witnesses. One council member suggested that city council wasn’t as essential as other civic services, and that Mayor Jane Castor was doing a good job without them. But in a virtual meeting at the start of April, the council agreed to move forward with a resolution that would allow them to continue meeting via phone, and opening up public comment through mail, email, and voicemail. On May 7, the council will meet remotely for the first time.
Some smaller cities have preferred to continue holding physical meetings in their chambers, while complying with social distancing orders. When Morganton, North Carolina, canceled its April meeting, it decided to wait to hold a physical meeting until May 4. They trained cameras on each city council member, seated six feet apart throughout the chamber.
“We always broadcast our meetings live on our local government access channel,” said Ethan Smith, the city of Morganton’s Public Information Officer. “But the biggest challenge was, how do you hold a meeting while still maintaining social distancing and following CDC recommendations and guidelines … but without limiting the public’s access to their government.”
In addition to allowing the public to submit comments via email, mail, or hand-delivered letter, Morganton allowed residents to sign up to come to the city council one at a time, speak to the chamber, and then leave.
Logistical matters cleared, there’s also a learning curve to contend with. Before the council’s April 24 meeting, NYC Speaker Corey Johnson and other council staff were working “around the clock for weeks” on trainings, a council spokesperson said. D’Alba and sergeant at arms Rafael Perez had to institute special security precautions. To lower the risk of “Zoombombing,” in which hackers broadcast porn or otherwise hijack group video meetings on Zoom, the public wasn’t invited into the meeting room itself; instead, they watched it on a livestream.
The city of Petersburg, Virginia, however, wasn’t as prudent: According to a local ABC news site, a “nude hacker” managed to enter one of the city’s GoToMeeting-hosted virtual sessions, causing a virtual scene. (The council was resilient, picking back up where they left off by phone.)
City legislators are also not immune to the other usual problems that plague video meetings — slow WiFi, inopportune mutes, and the classic faux pas of saying something you probably shouldn’t in front of a crowd of your coworkers.
Chicago’s April 24 city council meeting (their third since the shutdowns began) started a lot like many other recent video meetings at American workplaces. Before Mayor Lori Lightfoot appeared onscreen, the group chatted about who needed a haircut. It was Friday, but as one alderman said, “every day is Monday.” For members of the public who were tuning in, there was a sense of being in on something, for a moment, until a voice off-screen reminded the lawmakers that they were being live-streamed and that she was going to have to mute their small talk.
The meeting that followed became less cordial, as the council debated whether or not to grant Lightfoot with expanded emergency powers to allocate federal aid for coronavirus relief. Some aldermen opposed the plan, worried that with limited oversight, there would be no assurance that Lightfoot would disburse funding equitably through the city. Others defended the mayor’s right to act quickly and decisively. (They won the majority.) By the end of the meeting, a vote to delay the date of the council’s next quorum had devolved into profanity. “This is a total shitshow,” an alderwoman identified by the Chicago Sun-Times as Susan Sadlowski Garza was heard saying. (Garza did not respond to a request for comment.)
Will live-streamed remote meetings become an ongoing fixture of city governance once lockdowns ease? “My hope is that we’re creating new forms of citizen engagement and activism through this,” said Philadelphia’s Gym. “I think more people are online paying attention.” Remote meetings might also expand community input, by allowing “people who otherwise could not physically show up to testify at council sessions to do so.”
Still, she’s ready to go back to City Hall as soon as possible.
“Virtual government is not a substitute for actual delivery of services,” she said. “There is no way for us to do this entirely online — not when we have a city in which the gap in technology and access is so vast as ours.”