Metropolis

Zoom Is the Best Thing to Happen to Local Government in Years

Thanks to the pandemic, it’s never been easier to give your representatives an earful.

A man poses with his laptop computer in the late summer sunshine in the grounds of Cardiff Castle.
He’s about to tell off his mayor. Geoff Caddick/Getty Images

Let’s start with the ice cream.

On June 11 of last year, in the eighth hour of its weekly meeting, the San Francisco Planning Commission heard the case of Garden Creamery v. Matcha n’ More. The owners of the former ice cream shop alleged that the entrepreneurs behind the latter ice cream shop had lied on their planning application to open up in a long-vacant retail space in the city’s Mission District—and asked that the planners review their application.

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So far, not much of a scoop in a city famous for petty bureaucratic skirmishes. But because this was 2020, the typical meager audience at the commission meeting had been replaced with the whole San Francisco phonebook. The calls came and came, as locals duked it out over chain stores, gentrification, the pandemic, and ice cream.

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The second caller was pro–Matcha n’ More. The Planning Commission should not be dealing with something like this, he said. The eighth caller was anti-Matcha. “Their ice cream topped with 24-karat gold is at best tone-deaf and at worst the ultimate symbol of gentrification.” Eleventh caller: pro. Please don’t allow our planning process to be weaponized against a competitor. Fourteenth caller: anti. There’s enough ice cream in the neighborhood. Caller 26: Is this a good use of our time? The 65th and final caller: “I support the new business. The whole process is dumb as shit.”

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The Planning Commission let the shop open. But the dispute, which took more than an hour of a nine-hour-plus meeting, soon went viral thanks to the diligent live-tweeting of a software developer named Robert Fruchtman. The hearing became a symbol of San Francisco’s culture of participatory governance run amok.

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But in some ways, the critics were wrong. The extended ice cream review was kind of great—and not just as a teaching moment. The meeting was going to happen anyway. In normal times, it would have taken place in City Hall, in the middle of a late-spring workday, with a tiny audience of extremely motivated people—the kinds of people who could afford to take a half or full day off from their jobs to attend. The ice cream telethon was a fairer straw poll than any San Francisco would have seen before its 2020 experiment with democracy online. Suffice it to say that no one with the extremely valid view that “the whole process is dumb as shit” would have taken a day off from work to say so in 2019.

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Public hearings like these have carried the undeserved imprimatur of democracy for years, as if cities could compensate for developer-driven politics and top-down urban renewal—and recover the equitable glory of Alexis de Tocqueville’s New England town meetings—with enough weekday afternoon open-mic events. In reality, the culture of participatory governance often reinforces the very power structures it is supposed to subvert, by engaging only a small group of residents with strong views.

One of the main barriers to representative participation, scholars, activists, and politicians agree, is simply getting to the room where it happens. If that really is the case, letting the whole internet talk at the meeting just might be a radical act.

One story you often hear about American urban history is that a generation of neighborhood activists like Jane Jacobs pried control from unaccountable power brokers like Robert Moses, ending the urban renewal era and bringing power to the people.

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Lately that narrative has come under skeptical review. In a 2011 essay, the historian Thomas Campanella argued that a fallacy lay behind planning’s populist turn. “The literature on grassroots planning tends to assume a citizenry of Gandhian humanists. In fact, most people are not motivated by altruism but by self-interest. Preservation and enhancement of that self-interest—which usually orbits about the axes of rising crime rates and falling property values—are the real drivers of community activism.” Though the phrase community activism may conjure up memories of the civil rights movement, its most effective practitioners, according to this revisionist history, are often old, wealthy, white homeowners.

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Between 2015 and 2017, a group of researchers led by Boston University’s Katherine Einstein measured the discrepancy between speakers at town hall meetings and the public at large by studying planning and zoning meetings in 97 cities and towns around Boston. Among commenters, women were underrepresented relative to their share of the population by 8 points. White people were overrepresented by 8 points. People over 50 were overrepresented by 22 points. Homeowners were overrepresented by 28 points. “Greater participation may amplify some voices more than others,” the authors wrote.

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Nowhere has this become a more pressing issue than in the increasingly national fight over new housing. The public meeting status quo was epitomized by a February 2020 meeting of the Seattle City Council at which residents performed a “Tree Murder Song” in protest of a new apartment building. (Warning: It’s catchy.)

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Listening to the crowd at public meetings is “totally unscientific, obviously creates all kinds of selection bias problems, yet it’s the No. 1 way that elected officials get a sense of where people stand on an issue,” said Laura Foote, the executive director of YIMBY Action, a San Francisco–based group that advocates for new housing. That assertion is backed up by Einstein’s research, which reports that half of mayors think of neighborhood meetings as a top way to understand their constituents’ views.

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Foote used to bus activists to suburban government meetings hours away. She would try to time a coffee break from work so she could run to City Hall just in time to talk. Zoom has prompted a “sea change” in how easy it is to get people to show up, she said. “You can call in from wherever you are and participate in government.”

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In the beginning of the pandemic, many activists worried pandemic-era government would hang the public out to dry. But in the Bay Area, a consensus has developed around the opposite conclusion. Alex Lee, a 25-year-old Democrat who represents San Jose in the California State Assembly, has written a bill to ensure that remote participation continues after COVID vaccination makes it possible to meet in person again. AB 339 has the support of a roll call of grassroots groups, including the Dolores Huerta Foundation and Mi Familia Vota.

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“We have a lot of civil rights organizations that believe what I believe,” Lee said. “Expanded access has allowed a lot more people to participate.” (Including, importantly, disabled residents for whom attending in-person meetings may be a hassle.)The wake-up call for him, Lee says, was the racial justice protests last summer. In San Jose, so many people called about the police budget they had to organize a special session to accommodate them.

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Similar scenes played out in New York and Los Angeles in the wake of 2020’s massive protests. At a June hearing on the widespread New York Police Department violence directed at demonstrators, hundreds of witnesses signed up to speak, forcing New York Attorney General Letitia James to schedule a second hearing. A City Council meeting in Los Angeles on the police budget also drew hundreds of speakers from what the Los Angeles Times called “an angry chorus of new voices.” Angry or not, those voices appeared in countless smaller city councils and school boards across the country all summer, as hundreds of local agendas turned to confronting racism.

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One place that’s experienced the Zoom boom in public meetings over the past year is Denver.

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For almost five years, planners in Denver have been trying to reform the city’s occupancy laws, which have long made it illegal for more than two unrelated adults to live in the same home. Opponents argue occupancy laws are both discriminatory and widely disobeyed, leaving tenants from college students to new immigrants in illegal living situations at the mercy of their landlords and their neighbors.

Since 2018, when the city began drafting a proposal, planners have held three dozen public meetings. Public outreach began in earnest in January 2020, with a set of four open-house events, three on weeknights and one on a Saturday morning. Five hundred and fifty people attended; 349 took a demographic survey. Of those surveyed, 85 percent identified as non-Hispanic white and almost 2 in 3 were over 55. Denver at large is only 54 percent non-Hispanic white; the median age is 35.

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Attendees at the open-house meetings were 70 percent opposed to the group living project. A group called Safe & Sound Denver produced a handful of videos to sum up the opposition view: Allowing more adults to legally cohabitate would turn their neighborhoods into slums.

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By last week, when the time came for the City Council to vote on the biggest change to the Denver zoning code in a decade, the Mile High City’s public feedback process had been Zoomified. The usual suspects spoke in opposition. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch’s brother, J.J., testified against. So did a woman named Lynne Rasey, who argued the proposals would lead to “white flight” and asked what her new neighbors would be like: “How many pit bulls will they have?”

But this time supporters turned out. One caller was living in her car. Another was a refugee from Myanmar who noted through a translator that many of her friends had fled the city’s high rents since she arrived a decade ago. The meeting lasted more than six hours; more than 150 people spoke. Pro voices outnumbered con 2 to 1. The City Council passed the group living bill 11 to 2. “I think we’re getting a different kind of person than if they’d had to drive down, park, go through security, and sit on an uncomfortable bench for hours,” said Stacy Simonet, the council’s administrator of communications and technology solutions.

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Candi CdeBaca, the youngest Denver councilor and member of the Democratic Socialists of America, said the protests of 2020 were a catalyst—but virtual participation made that civic engagement stick. On Mondays, Denver runs a general public comment session in the City Council. In-person sessions had brought out five or six people; now, every week brings a couple dozen. CdeBaca was even invited to a citizens’ study group that has started reading through the city charter. Now, she said, “people who didn’t even know you could come to council and watch meetings are deeply engaged.”

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Obviously, the politics of 2020 were unique in more than just Zoom access. Four years ago, nationwide furor over the GOP effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act also drew hundreds of first-time participants to town hall meetings and helped galvanize support for the law.

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Despite this summer’s public hearing turnout, Paula Minor, a Black Lives Matter activist in Los Angeles, told me she thought the virtual meetings weren’t a good thing. At pre-pandemic police commission hearings, she said, turnout had rarely been a problem. “Families of loved ones who had been murdered by LAPD would show up, in addition to supporters and activists.” The result was an emphatic show of resistance—and one ready-made for television cameras in a way that online meetings are not.

More importantly, Minor pointed out, the Los Angeles Police Commission had already moved to restrict public comment to the first 45 minutes of a meeting—which, at three minutes a pop, could mean just 15 speakers. In such a case, heavy Zoom turnout doesn’t mean much.

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The first academic study of democracy by Zoom has been a disappointment. Einstein, the Boston University professor, has been gathering data since March on meeting participation in the same cities she studied five years ago. The work is not yet finished, she said, but she feels confident in the preliminary results: “We see a super similar percentage of people opposed to new housing, and very low number of people supportive. And this really depressed us. Given everything that happened this summer about increased racial justice, we thought maybe there would be some organizing in places like Cambridge or other progressive cities and towns would lead to a groundswell in support of new housing. We don’t really see it.”

Einstein’s findings suggest that while organized groups may have an easier time getting speakers to online meetings in places like Denver and San Francisco, general turnout isn’t guaranteed to surge. Zoom alone can’t fix local democracy. It may not even stick around: In Brownstone Brooklyn, one group fighting a rezoning has gone to court to turn back the clock to in-person meetings.

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Thomas Campanella, the author of the 2011 cri de coeur for planners to reassert their authority, is still a skeptic. The arrival of Zoom, he suggested to me, would favor the same highly educated, creative-class professionals who use the software in their daily life. It’s true that those people were until recently underrepresented at the zoning board meetings of the world, because they were too busy with child care and jobs to argue about ice cream at city hall. But does bringing them into the fold democratize a broken system?

Digital access does not by any means perfect participatory governance. Still, it is indisputably easier to yell at your mayor from the couch.

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