Public Insight Network

Virtual town hall: Miami Lakes may allow citizen comments via video-conference

Roberto Alonso wanted to chime in during a Miami Lakes Town Council meeting last year, but work had taken him out of town.

Even though the longtime resident could stream the meeting online from his hotel room, he couldn’t participate in the public comments. If only there were a way to get beamed into the council chambers via the Internet...

“I think it’d be something interesting, so that residents can provide input whether they’re in town or not,” Alonso said.

In what would be a first for Miami-Dade County and possibly the country, Miami Lakes is considering using Internet video calls to let residents speak during public comments at town meetings.

Councilman Manny Cid first proposed the idea at a December meeting, where he said a few residents, like Alfonso, had told him they’d love to be able to voice their opinions when they can’t be at Town Hall in person.

After discussing concerns like how to deal with someone using profanity, council members asked town staffers to come up with a system to try out.

“It’s amazing,” Cid told the Miami Herald. “It will really change the way that folks access their government.”

Staffers recently decided to go with GoToMeeting, an online service hosted by multinational software company Citrix Systems, where members of the public would be able to register with the town clerk before a meeting and be given a invitation code to call in during public comments.

Town Manager Alex Rey will present the proposal to the council at its Feb. 11 meeting. He said the clerk and the mayor would have control to mute or disconnect someone who was behaving inappropriately, not unlike asking a sergeant-at-arms to handle an unruly visitor at town hall.

“If the council is in agreement with the process, we will do the first launch at the March meeting,” Rey said.

The choice of GoToMeeting will cost the town only $50 a month.

“It’s only $600 a year to have this tremendous accessibility,” Cid said.

The experience of having someone participate from afar wouldn’t be completely new to the council. Councilman Tony Lama has actually participated in a meeting before via video call while at a conference in San Francisco last year. In that instance, he used Skype to call in.

“When it was time for the meeting, I Skyped into the meeting from my hotel room,” he said.

Other cities in the U.S. that have considered letting people make comments through video-conference have shelved the idea. According to the Detroit Free-Press, Detroit’s City Council nixed a Skype proposal in August 2011 for fear of profanity. In December, the Town Council in Cheshire, Conn., voted down the idea over worries people wouldn’t be who they said they were.

But in Miami Lakes, the council could push civic participation into the 21st century.

Resident Michael Mut said having the option to video-conference in would be more convenient for him and likely increase public interest in what goes on at Town Hall.

“I believe this option would invite more input and political participation from the community,” he said.

But Terry Murphy said he didn’t think such a system is necessary for everyone.

“Perhaps if it was being made available to home-bound residents with special needs or disabilities,” he said. “But, really, if there is something of interest that I want to comment on, it is easy enough to walk or ride a bike to our town hall and make a statement.”