Planning Commission chair airs frustrations about virtual meeting technology, with staff calling for no in-person sessions through September

Planning & Zoning division manager responds with steps seen as means to improve process

This information about the Planning Commission is available on the county website. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In March, Sarasota County administrative staff canceled advisory board meetings and worked to consolidate County Commission business into short sessions that could be conducted in the Chambers at the county Administration Center in downtown Sarasota.

As the COVID-19 pandemic was making its presence known in the community, the focus was on measures to prevent spread of the virus.

Then, in late April, administrative staff developed a plan to enable the Planning Commission, which long has been considered the county’s most influential advisory board, to start conducting sessions via remote meeting technology.

The first of those sessions was conducted on May 7, lasting slightly longer than four hours. That also marked the first time since Feb. 20 that the Planning Commission had handled county business.

Last week, Planning Commission Chair Laura Benson sent an email to Michele Norton, the county’s Planning & Zoning Division manager, pointing out a number of frustrations with which she and her colleagues have had to contend during the remote sessions.

Benson made it clear that she wanted the Planning Commission’s meetings once again to be held in person.

In her Aug. 27 email, Benson wrote, “I have learned Paula Clintsman [the county staff liaison to the board] that it is the decision of the Planning Department to continue the Planning Commission Meetings in a virtual format through September. I am disappointed by that and I am sure the other commissioners will be as well.”

Benson added, “[T]he quality of presentations, the sound quality and the inability for the public to have adequate input is troubling to me.”

During the Aug. 20 meeting, for example, Benson made multiple attempts to allow one woman who had signed up to speak to offer remarks during a public hearing. Finally, with no success and no indication from technical staff about how to resolve the problem, Benson had to acknowledge that the woman would be unable to provide the comments that night.

In her email to Norton, Benson wrote, “I am particularly distraught that the public isn’t being afforded an appropriate opportunity to provide their testimony. Could you please develop a [follow-up] email to the public who register suggesting that they have a backup plan (like calling in and having a phone number to do so) in the event they have problems.”

Laura Benson of Venice is the Planning Commission chair. Image from Benson’s Realtor page on Facebook

Additionally, on at least a couple of occasions during an Aug. 20 public hearing on a proposed, citizen-initiated Comprehensive Plan amendment, a person could be heard talking over the individual making remarks to the board.

In her email to Norton, Benson noted of that meeting, “I don’t know why people were being muted in the middle of their comments, or why some people could apparently unmute and make inappropriate comments during presentations. There ought to be a protocol that prevents that.”

Benson also pointed out to Norton, “We had discussed in May or June the issues with staff presentations and I would have hoped these would have improved after all this time.”

Benson continued, “The sound quality of staff presentations is simply subpar in a Zoom world. … The sound quality at last week’s meeting was particularly difficult. I use a headset. I know that the tech staff person … uses a [headset] because we can hear him with clarity and without background noise or distortion. In the absence of a good built in microphone on a laptop that a presenter is speaking directly into — the use of proper audio equipment is a necessity.”

Finally, Benson told Norton, “I recognize we are just an advisory board but our board has often times been the focus of a lot of attention and given the nature of what we hear we probably have a greater audience and more public participation than other advisory boards. I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask that we be better prepared and recognize that this format requires us all to make the effort to accommodate all stakeholders.”

The email was sent at 9:18 a.m. on Aug. 27. County Administrator Jonathan Lewis passed it along to the county commissioners at 9:37 a.m. that day with the note, “FYI.”

The staff response

Michele Norton. Image from her LinkedIn account

The following day, Norton responded to Benson.

“We appreciate and fully understand the comments you have noted … regarding improvements that can be made with staff presentations and your concerns and wishes to hold in-person hearings as soon as possible,” Norton began. “The Planning Commission does important work for our community and we are doing our best to ensure your meetings are efficient and effective while providing a safe and healthy forum for all participants.”

Norton continued, “In terms of improving virtual hearings, it is always our goal to be more efficient and effective with our presentations and ensure full and transparent public participation. Below is an update on a few process improvements we are implementing:

  • “Beginning next week, we will be implementing mandatory dry runs every Wednesday prior to the Planning Commission [meeting] … for all staff.
  • “We are addressing the mute issue with our [Information Technology] department with the likely outcome that only the presenter will be unmuted and any other staff must be called upon by the presenter to be unmuted.
  • “In the event of a technical issue, we will have a Planning Technician prepared to upload the presentation and forward slides as directed to keep the meeting moving smoothly.
  • “For attendees who are unaware that they do not have a mic on their computers when called upon, we will ask that they leave the Zoom meeting and go back to the invite and utilize the Zoom phone number provided to call in to speak on the petition.
  • “To address the sound quality of staff presentations, we are in the process of ordering staff headsets with a mic. We hope they will be delivered prior to the next meeting.”
This screen is a placeholder staff has used during Planning Commission hearings via Zoom as staff prepares to show a PowerPoint presentation. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Then Norton pointed out, “[W]e have already made progress on developing a re-entry plan for the Planning Commission to hold in-person hearings and/or hybrid meetings. Please note that in-person and hybrid hearings require a significant amount of coordination and logistical planning across multiple departments. These re-entry plans outline health and safety measures (e.g. screening, social distancing, etc.) and detail meeting logistics for differing scenarios (e.g. room capacity). We will continue to develop this plan,” which, she added, ultimately would have to be reviewed and approved by the Executive Policy Group working at the county’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC).

“We will keep you informed,” Norton continued, “as we continue to explore moving forward with re-entry based on approved guidelines as soon as it is deemed safe and logistically effective.”

Norton concluded her email to Benson with this statement:

“We greatly thank you for your patience during these unusual times and appreciate your leadership on the Board facilitating these meetings.”