Today, most public hearings are conducted online or by conference call, whether before the Planning Commission, City Council, Board of Adjustments or County Board. Every unit of government has switched to some form of telephonic or video hearing format in response to the global pandemic. The good news is projects are still being approved by local bodies, but making an effective presentation is challenging, particularly when there is a point of conflict to be resolved by the public body. What follows are the best practices for virtual hearings.
- Start by requesting in-person appearances wherever possible. A few public bodies still conduct hearings in-person, and some are considering hybrid models that would offer either in-person or online appearances. Since in-person appearances are always preferable to online, ask whether in-person is an option.
- Prepare for the online hearing in the same way you would an in-person appearance. It is always best to dress the part and come prepared. While the pandemic has forced a bit of informality in the hearing process, which comes with its share of electronic glitches, public bodies appreciate the decorum that comes with a presentation prepared by a professional using the same rules of procedure that existed before the pandemic.
- Send arguments in writing ahead of the hearing. While this is good advice in all cases, it is even more important now that hearings are conducted online. A good written outline, sent ahead of time, will help the public body follow your testimony and keep you as the presenter on track and within any time limits imposed by the public body.
- Turn on your video if that’s an option. Most public meetings allow outside participants to turn on the video offered by the platform used for the hearing. By turning on the video, you are elevated to the same status as other participants in the hearing and become a more effective communicator.
- Make use of online reports, findings and plans. Since almost every project comes with a staff report, you can ask the staff or other presenters to put the report on the screen and then walk through required findings or project plans to make your point. As an alternative, send the staff a package of your materials in PowerPoint or similar format to use during your presentation.
- Continue to make use of supporters in testimony for your project. Local bodies have gotten good at creating an online queue for those that want to testify. While it may take some patience as they figure out who is online, the hearing must be available for all who want to testify in writing or by audio and video.
- When you are done with testimony, recap your points and turn off your video or mute your mic. It is now common to hear dogs barking or kids crying in online meetings but it certainly improves outcomes if everyone respects the hearing process by not contributing to the disruption that often occurs when the public testifies from home.
- Keep your sense of humor. We are living in extraordinary times and are often saved by our own sense of humor in the face of the ridiculous. If someone burps, slams a door or spills a cup of coffee on their keyboard, just keep your wits about you and offer a kind pause while the meeting or hearing comes back to order. And remember to stay safe out there!
Bill Griffith has been practicing land use and municipal law for over thirty years. He enjoys interviewing experts on the future of land use and sustainability. You can listen to his podcast, Finding the Future here.