What to expect from your next virtual public meeting

14 October 2020

As part of the response to the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Prtizker administration issued a stay at home order which limited in person gatherings. That order restricted local, city and state government from holding the requisite public meetings that are central mechanisms in the functioning of the government body. As a result, public meetings were moved to a virtual setting, made open to the public online.

So, what should real estate professionals expect when presenting their potential projects to the public via virtual meeting? The Focus development team members are currently moving through the zoning process with several municipalities. We sat down with Courtney Brower, Senior Development Manager and Vicky Lee, Vice President, Development to learn more of the shift to virtual public meetings.

To begin, let’s explore why public meetings are a requirement in the first place and why they are such an important part of the real estate development process?

Courtney: Public meetings are required by the Illinois Open Meetings Act which, according to the office of the Illinois Attorney General, is “designed to prohibit secret deliberations and action on matters, due to their potential impact on the public and should be discussed in a public forum”. Based on the idea that government bodies exist to further the goals of the people and therefore the people have the right to be informed, the act exists to “ensure that the actions of the public bodies be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly”.

There are several requirements for any public meeting such as giving pubic notice of the meeting, recording minutes and taping the proceedings which much always be addressed, even when the meeting is held virtually. Additionally, all meetings have to accessible to all members of the community, which has different implications when considering virtual public meetings.

What are the major differences between in-person and virtual public meetings?

Vicky: While the forum of public meetings has changed, the requirements have not. This means that the agenda for presenting of projects, deliberating and hearing public comment during these meetings has largely stayed the same. As many of us have experienced, the methods for conducting business via virtual meeting software is sometimes more challenging than we thought, which has also played out during public government meetings across the country.

As you’ve attended virtual public meetings, what have you found most helpful as you prepare?

Courtney: It is important to recognize and address the challenges inherent to a virtual format before and during a virtual public meeting. For instance, consider providing the public with multiple and sometimes redundant means for commenting during or participating in public meetings. Additionally, its crucial that presenters are methodical in their approach to presenting information, taking care to speak clearly and to be demonstrative during virtual meetings. This might mean practicing with screen share tools like the polling or Q/A feature or other presenter technologies available through many virtual meeting platforms.

Additionally, it is important to adjust what sorts of supporting materials you provide for municipal leaders and audience members to review in advance or during your virtual meeting. The ability to provide supporting reports or design briefs for meeting participants is an important part of presenting a strong argument for a proposed project to the public. With public meetings taking place virtually, all meeting materials must be adapted to suit that format. Familiarize yourself with presentation software like PowerPoint or Prezi and practice utilizing the presentation tools available in the virtual meeting software selected by the particular government body.

During a recent presentation, for example, I re-formatted submission materials to be presentable via Zoom by enlarging important images and notes and re-creating handouts to be easily shared online.

How has the audience at public meetings changed since going virtual?

Vicky: Like any other online meeting, virtual public meeting attendees have the ability to participate as silent listeners opening the door to a new type of audience member. During typical public meeting, attendees from the general public are easily identified and act as an indicator for body leaders to gauge the public’s opinion of the proposed project. However, as noted by Courtney, “there have not been a lot of members of the community that have signed up to speak at virtual meetings.” And due to participants ability to remain ‘invisible’, “ …it’s hard to say how many people are attending the meetings.”

One reason for this early lack of participation may be due to a simple explanation – people are adapting to the new normal. Additionally, all meeting proceedings are being recorded and are made available online later. This may also have an impact on how and when community members are participating in the public process. Additionally, due to the learning curve for municipalities to tranSFer the public meeting to a virtual setting, there are generally fewer topics being covered. This might also explain the reduced audience sizes.

Like many day-to-day functions, the public meeting is just one process that had to be re-imagined in the face of Covid-19. While much of the process remains the same, the change in format requires that developers take special care in the methods and content they use to present their potential projects to the public.

To learn more about our experience with virtual public meetings or to discuss how Focus may assist your team in the process, reach out today.

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