Effective and Legal Meetings in the New Technology World

By Kristin Withrow posted 10-08-2021 02:25 PM

  
By Lindsay A. Thorson, Senior Attorney, Richards, Watson & Gershon
Cyber Internet
Technology allows special districts to engage with members of the public, provide broad access to information and increase transparency; however, technology can also limit and create barriers to accessing information. Can districts harness the best parts of technology while continuing to conduct the people’s business in an open and effective manner? Yes, but, as the old adage goes, with great power comes great responsibility. It is critical that districts carefully plan and consider how technology will be implemented and remain vigilant that use of technology does not negatively impact the ability of board members and the public to meaningfully engage during public meetings.

Technology has increasingly integrated itself into most aspects of public meetings, and the events of the past year have only expedited that integration. While technology may not always be obvious, it touches on almost all aspects of preparing for, conducting, and documenting public meetings. Integration starts pre-meeting with how agenda items are shared with board members and how agendas are posted online. During meetings, board members, staff and the public may use electronic agendas, teleconferencing, and streaming platforms. Board agendas, minutes and video of meetings remain available online and are stored in compliance with retention policies. Meetings are announced and discussed on district websites, in social media and through texts and email.

The keys to successfully integrating technology into the operations of districts are advance planning and inclusiveness.

Board members, district employees, district legal counsel and the public have invaluable input to provide when deciding how and when to include technology in board meetings. Technology is all encompassing and will impact each of these individuals as well. Prior to implementing any new technology, consider who will be affected or who will need to use that technology and include them in the planning process. While the need for some conversations may be obvious, others may not be. For example, if a district plans on livestreaming its meetings, it should consult with those who are familiar with the facility where meetings are held. Older buildings may not contain the infrastructure needed to support updated Wi-Fi and improvements may be necessary before that type of project can move forward.

Another source of helpful guidance can be found in fellow public agencies. Technology advances quickly and can often outpace existing laws and policies. Public agencies frequently face the same challenges and another agency may have already evaluated a situation your district is addressing. One area where this can be helpful is when selecting technology providers for services such as website design and control, document security and storage, and social media management. Public agencies face unique issues such as compliance with the Brown Act, the Public Records Act and confidentiality and procurement requirements. Not all technology providers are familiar with these aspects and not all technology providers can provide the specialized services public agencies require. Colleagues at other agencies can share good and bad experiences with technology providers, so that your district can avoid problematic technology providers. These colleagues can also share how their agencies have dealt with introducing and maintaining new technology in their meetings. This can include advice on what policies and trainings have been useful, tips for managing public comments and how to provide equitable access to public meetings. They can also provide cautionary tales for policies or programs that did not work.

Finally, look for practical ways to support maintaining legal and effective meetings through establishing both external and internal policies, pre-meeting checklists and training opportunities. Technology can be fickle and confusing even for the most experienced individual. Couple that with the need to make sure that meetings remain compliant with open meeting laws, and it can create a very stressful situation.

Good policies can set expectations and provide direction in difficult conditions. Internally, policies can set norms for board member behavior during meetings. When meetings are held entirely via teleconference or in a hybrid format it can be difficult to pick up on social cues and maintain the normal flow. Adopting policies for how board members will indicate they want to speak, and to discourage side or offline conversations, can help your meeting run smoothly. Policies can also help the public feel comfortable participating in the meeting. For example, establishing clear guidelines for how to access and actively participate in online meetings, including what accommodations are available, is not only required by law, but encourages attendance and involvement.

Advance preparation and checklists can expose potential problems prior to the meeting and give district staff time to address them. One task to incorporate is testing technology prior to the meeting, including Wi-Fi connection, and audio and video quality. Additionally, confirm that any access accommodations are in place and functioning. If possible, have an individual that does not have other pre-meeting tasks in charge of testing and running technology. Identify backup or alternative options if the main technology does not work. For example, have board member phone numbers readily available in case teleconference audio for a board member stops working.

Offering training to board members, including individual or supplemental training, can limit technical and legal difficulties and help meetings run more efficiently and effectively. Training can be practical, such as teaching board members how to sign in and out of meetings, and use teleconferencing tools like the mute button and screen sharing function. Consider providing checklists or “how to” flow charts. Training can also include legal guidance. Technology easily can lead to inadvertent violations of the law. Including multiple board members in an email or text message, or forwarding electronic messages can result in a serial meeting that violates the Brown Act. Board members may be unaware that their district-related electronic communications generally are subject to public disclosure under the Public Records Act. Changing laws make regular legal updates critical.

Technology can support, and in recent times, make possible, legally compliant public meetings and enhance their effectiveness, so long as districts carefully and thoughtfully integrate it.

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