Opportunities and Threats of Virtual Public Hearings

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This societal crisis, unlike any we have seen in our lifetimes, has presented a myriad of challenges.    

Arguably one of the hardest challenges to grapple with has been social distancing and orders prohibiting large gatherings.  

But we’re adapting. 

Online classes… 

Livestreamed concerts… 

Virtual bachelor/bachelorette parties…  

Public Hearings…?  

A public hearing by definition is a formal meeting for receiving testimony from the public at large on a local issue, or proposed government action. The current situation presents a few issues with that definition. What happens when the public cannot physically convene at large? 

Well, if you hadn’t heard of Zoom before, we’re sure it has become a part of your daily life now. As people around the world familiarize themselves with staying home and connecting with each other virtually, local government officials have had to improvise as well to stay in touch with their constituents. 

However, with these unprecedented circumstances, local officials are just starting to experiment with virtual public hearings and telephone town hallsThis is a new beast with unique opportunities and threats.  

Here are a few:  

  • It’s new. New to the public. New to officials. Muted microphones (or accidentally unmuted microphones), call-in information, pet or children popping in, connection interruptionsand other technological difficulties are inevitable. 
  • Controversial hearings with high participation would likely overwhelm some systems, precluding full participation from all who wish to do so. 
  • Technological availabilities and difficulties will make it tough for project supporters/opponents to join and testify.
  • “One documenter struggled to call into a Chicago Police Board meeting held via teleconference line because his cell phone plan didn’t include that feature. If public meetings are going to be truly accessible during this digital-only age, officials should consider lowering technological requirements to be as inclusive as possible.”
  • Beginning out, public attendance and participation has been minimal. It will take time to catch on, especially for older generations who are just getting the hang of “Zoom cocktail hours.” 
  • As a developer, lower attendance and decreased participation minimizes abutter and opposition impact at a hearing. Furthermore, some developers may seek to push controversial projects now knowing every municipality will be in desperate revenue holes and will need to explore any new source of potential revenue. 
  • As virtual meetings become the norm for the foreseeable future, system providers like Zoom have revamped their security3 to prevent “Zoom Bombers”, but the availability to access these meetings with fake names, number and addresses still exists, making it easier for anonymous comments and attacks.  
  • Not being face to face with constituents will make it easier for officials to make unpopular decisions.   

 With virtually no end in sight, public meetings and town halls will go on as scheduled, albeit digitally. It is in everyone’s best interest to jump onboard or online. 



1 https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/advocacy/direct-action/public-hearing/main 

2 https://www.citybureau.org/newswire/2020/4/2/how-public-meetings-are-changing-in-the-age-of-coronavirus 

 3 https://zoom.us/docs/en-us/privacy-and-security.html? 








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