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The Covid-19 Pandemic

by Ed Gunts1:15 pmMar 25, 20200

How the Planning Commission plans to meet in the age of coronavirus

Tomorrow’s virtual meeting raises many questions about how the commission will interact with the public and the press

Above: Planning Commission meetings typically attract an audience and public speakers. This meeting in November concerned Larry Jennings’ controversial Clipper Mill townhouse project. (Ed Gunts)

The city of Baltimore has cut back a number of services and meetings due to the coronavirus outbreak, but one agency has decided to move ahead with a previously scheduled session.

Baltimore’s Planning Commission plans to carry on with a public hearing scheduled for tomorrow, March 26.

But instead of allowing members of the general public to attend the meeting and testify on various subjects in person, as it normally does from its hearing room at 417 East Fayette Street, the commissioners will be meeting remotely via a video conference link, accessible by a computer or smartphone.

Members of the public, too, will be able to “attend” the hearing if they know how to gain access. If they’re unable to participate, planners say, they can submit written testimony, but they must do so at least three hours before the meeting starts.

The room where the planning commission usually meets will be open, and the video conference will up on a screen, but city employees are not expecting anyone to attend physically.

The new arrangement is designed to allow the commission to hold its meeting while also adhering to new rules in the age of coronavirus, or COVID-19, including Gov. Larry Hogan’s order to limit gatherings.

“As the city is responding to the current COVID-19 health crisis, it is important to keep members of the public, our Planning Commission, and staff as safe as possible,” states an eblast sent out about the meeting. “For that reason, and to comply with requirements to minimize the gatherings of people, we are shifting this meeting to a remote video conference meeting.”

How Will Public Participate?

The plan raises a number of questions about the process and exactly how it will work.

• How will the general public know how to participate in the meeting?

(The eblast is sent to a group of people who have asked in advance to receive updates from the planning department, but what about citizens who aren’t on the list but are interested in one or more items on the March 26 agenda?)

• What about people without access to a phone or computer?

• What will happen if people show up in person?

One of the items up for consideration tomorrow is pending City Council legislation to make Woodberry a local historic district, an issue that potentially affects scores of property owners and has both advocates and opponents.

In face-to-face meetings, people can sign up to testify right before the meeting by signing a sheet specifically for the item in which they are interested.

How can people make sure they can testify about the City Council bill in this case? How long can they speak? In what order? Will this process discourage people from “attending” the meeting and testifying, because it’s too complicated or cumbersome? Will it favor property owners or one side of the issue or the other?

The meetings usually are live-streamed by the city, a process that allows people at home or at work to follow the testimony and view the same visual presentations that the commissioners see, such as site plans with boundary lines. Will it be the same this time?

How Will the Media Cover?

The commissioners generally get a packet of information that includes the planning staff’s recommendations and other information. How will that work for others?

What about the commission’s mini-meeting, the briefing session it typically holds before its 1 p.m. public session? That’s supposed to be open to the public, too. Will that be part of the video conference?

How will members of the media be able to cover the meeting, get their questions answered and get reaction from participants, if they’re scattered in different locations? Reporters can follow along on their laptops, but that’s not the same as being at a physical meeting.

Finally, what about technical snafus? Will anyone be available for last minute technical assistance? The planning department has already had to send out a second announcement about tomorrow’s meeting because the first notice provided an incorrect video conference link.

According to the planning department, people can join the conference by computer or smartphone at: https://bmore.webex.com/bmore/j.php?MTID=m7eeab37801c4b77d1c896853fb433d41. The meeting number is: 715 092 576.

People can also join by telephone by calling: 1-408-418-9388. The access code is: 715 092 576.

For now, this is an experiment of sorts, presented as a replacement for one meeting only. It’s different from the approach taken by the Municipal and Zoning Appeals (BMZA) board and Liquor License Board, which have cancelled their hearings.

Might it be adopted in the future? As the planners put it in their eblast, “We will continue to update you as needed.”

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