Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the location of the Anschutz Medical Campus.
In March 2020, government agencies were forced to rethink how they conduct public business almost overnight as coronavirus precautions made in-person public meetings impossible.
The transition to remote, virtual public meetings was not without hurdles, and experts and community members say local governments encountered barriers to transparency along the way.
But virtual public meetings also provided new opportunities for community members to watch and participate in public business. As Colorado begins to return to some version of prepandemic normalcy, government officials are considering what changes to keep and where to return to business as usual.
For the University of Colorado and Boulder city officials, conducting public meetings during the pandemic meant navigating what’s required by law and what’s expected by members of the public.
Colorado’s open meetings law states that public meetings are “any kind of gathering, convened to discuss public business, in person, by telephone, electronically or by other means of communication.” The definition applies to meetings with three or more members of a local public body, or a quorum. For state public bodies, it applies to meetings of two or more members.
Other than specifying when meetings can be closed to the public and how meetings are noticed, the Colorado Open Meets Law leaves plenty up for interpretation.
State law doesn’t require that government agencies allow for public comment at public meetings, for example, but it’s a common practice across the state.
“Everyone does it pretty much because the public wants it and wants to be heard, and that’s the way it should be,” said Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. “It’s really been everybody figuring out the right way to do it.”
But that doesn’t mean the law needs to be more prescriptive, Roberts said. What works for public meetings in one community might not make sense in another.
Overall, Roberts said, transparency during the pandemic was “a mixed bag” but provided some benefits.
“The one thing that I think is good is that more people are realizing that they can interact with their government,” Roberts said. “A lot of meetings were online before. Now many more are, and perhaps a lot more people are tuning in.”
Allowing people to participate in public comment virtually could increase participation, Roberts said, but it also might lack the impact of speaking in person.
“I don’t think there’s a substitution for looking someone in the eye, the people you’re addressing, and speaking passionately about whatever issue it is you care about. It doesn’t translate as well on Webex or Zoom,” he said.
Meeting online, suddenly
When stay-at-home orders began in March 2020 and life as they knew it began to screech to a halt, University of Colorado leaders were more focused on what to do with 70,000 students and 35,000 employees than how to hold public meetings.
“Those frankly were the more pressing issues,” said Dan Wilkerson, former university general counsel and board secretary.
Early on, Wilkerson said, system leaders chose to follow state and local public health orders and to try as best as they could to set a good example — and that meant no in-person public meetings.
CU already had many of the tools it needed to switch to entirely virtual, remote meetings. The system began livestreaming Board of Regents meetings in February 2020 and was already familiar with Zoom, said former spokesperson Ken McConnellogue, who retired June 30.
“It was mostly the quick shift to virtual meetings that was the issue,” he said. “The board staff had to adapt quickly, and some of the regents had to ensure they had the proper technology set up at home and understood how to use it.”
Regent Glen Gallegos, who was chair of the board in 2020 and the first half of 2021, said the system had previously looked at some remote options for committee meetings so he wouldn’t have to travel to Denver from his home in Grand Junction as often — but those hadn’t gained much traction before the pandemic.
University staff had dress rehearsals for the first few virtual public meetings, Wilkerson said, using system employees to do mock meetings to make sure everyone could call in and that the meetings were secure from “Zoom bombers,” an early pandemic problem of bad actors infiltrating meetings and spamming them with explicit audio and video.
“Our assistant board secretary, Effie Ameen, worked herself to the bone to make sure everything went smoothly,” Wilkerson said. “I can’t say enough about her good work and making sure the logistics happened.”
Regent meetings are complex to hold and involve a lot of behind-the-scenes work even in person, said general counsel and board secretary Jeremy Hueth. In addition to nine regents and materials from campuses and members of the public, the meetings are also a balance of business and updating regents on what’s going on at campuses.
Hueth’s first public meeting as board secretary and general counsel was in January, when the board had a virtual retreat, a regular board meeting and a swearing-in ceremony for the newly elected regents all in one day. The system used three different technology platforms.
“The fact that we pulled that off gave us some confidence that we can conduct complicated board meetings electronically,” Hueth said.
While both the university and the city began livestreaming meetings before the pandemic, Boulder had more experience with broadcasting its gatherings. However, stay-at-home orders pushed the city to reexamine how to coordinate virtual public meetings in a way that allowed access in accordance with open-meeting requirements and adhered with public health guidelines.
From a legal standpoint, nothing in the Colorado Open Meetings Law prohibits electronic meetings, though Boulder did create some rules around the electronic meeting format for its quasi-judicial boards and commissions, including City Council, Planning Board and the Beverage Licensing Authority.
“(The rules) ensured that people had access and that legal due process rights were acknowledged and that sort of thing,” Interim City Attorney Sandra Llanes said.
“As you can imagine, it was pretty challenging in the beginning, but it was actually quite remarkable how quickly we were able to get things going,” she added.
However, there was a scramble in Boulder’s communications and engagement department to ensure that meetings were conducted in a way that remained inclusive and transparent. City staff learned to use new technology, and those systems and processes continued to change as the pandemic progressed. Aside from meeting statutory requirements, Boulder’s engagement staff wanted to be sure that people had access and could provide feedback to the city in a meaningful and effective way.
“It was a super-steep learning curve in the beginning, kind of similar for everyone,” Engagement Specialist Ryan Hanschen said. “It really has been continuing to evolve, learning as we go.”
Fine-tuning the process
CU’s Board of Regents met 33 times virtually between April 2020 and July 2021.
“Once we figured out the capabilities of it, people kind of went, ‘Wow, maybe we should have been doing this before,” Gallegos said.
The only hiccups Gallegos could recall were problems with wireless internet connections or dogs barking off-screen. There were also unforeseen benefits, Gallegos said, like watching Regent Jack Kroll’s newborn daughter grow over the course of a year. She was a semiregular feature, appearing for a few minutes cradled in Kroll’s arms and, as she grew, squirming with energy.
Likewise, from the city perspective, the glowing neon light behind Councilmember Adam Swetlik’s couch became something of a running joke.
CU is not able to track how many people watch the meetings online, McConnellogue said.
Boulder City Council’s aggregate live viewership on YouTube more than doubled — from 2,814 views in 2019 to 8,452 in 2020. The city cannot track viewership on Channel 8 or Novus, Hanschen said.
Hosting a fully virtual meeting felt impossible for city officials “when thinking about it in an abstract way” before the pandemic, Llanes noted.
“When you’re faced with no other choice. … It was important enough to make it happen, and we did,” she said.
At the end of the day, many residents found it easier to tune in remotely.
“And so I think that in some ways, we may be accessing more people. … That’s a good thing, engaging more people in the process,” Llanes said.
However, from staff’s perspective, it often felt as if something changed each time they began to adjust to a new system, process or piece of guidance from the county or state public health department, Hanschen said.
A big part of the job included “managing expectations and acknowledging that there are some limits to online engagement and what we can do and just making sure that community members understand those limitations and doing our best to work within some of those,” he said.
As part of its coronavirus response, Boulder deployed a team of emergency response connectors, meant to engage and connect with marginalized communities. Using Zoom is easy for some and harder for others, Hanschen noted. The city worked with its emergency response connectors to provide WiFi hotspots for those without internet access.
Boulder had long offered interpretation services through a radio system for City Council meetings, but there were only a select number of these systems available in council chambers. Moving to a virtual interpretation service has increased the number of people who can access the meetings in another language, Language Access Program Manager Manuela Sifuentes said.
Boulder offered interpretation for its monthly COVID-19 updates, and an interpreter is available anytime someone wants to speak during a public hearing or open comment.
But due to funding, the city had to consider when to offer interpretation throughout the pandemic. Sifuentes is in the process of working with the communication and engagement department to determine guidelines around when interpretation should be provided.
It’s costly to have interpreters, though Sifuentes views it as a worthwhile investment.
“And like all investments, we want to be smart about how we’re investing that (money),” she said.
Generally, the pandemic did improve the city’s ability to connect with nonntive English speakers in Boulder.
“Now we just have one more way to communicate and engage with people,” she said. “We can do something in person and we can also do this. I think in that sense it’s kind of improved some things.”
Hanschen reiterated that.
“We wanted to make sure that engagement is meaningful, and it’s inclusive,” Hanschen said. “I think (the pandemic) has enhanced both of those.”
Questions of access
CU’s virtual Board of Regent meetings largely stayed the same from April 2020 until this summer, with one notable change — the board started off by not offering live public comment.
In regular virtual meetings in April, May and June 2020, members of the public were instructed to email the board with their public comments.
“The whole Zoom concept was new in terms of conducting a public meeting that way, and I think in the early stages we were saying, ‘How can we do this and make sure the technology works for us.’ We were trying to keep it as simple as possible,” Wilkerson, the former board secretary, said.
Providing a chance for public comment is not required by state law but is a common practice for public bodies, said Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
The board began hearing from constituents over last summer who wanted live public comment to be included in the virtual meetings, Gallegos said.
“I think it took us awhile to figure out those workarounds,” Gallegos said. “For the first five or six months we didn’t do public comment, and we got called and emailed about the need to have it, so we figured it out.”
Gallegos said the participation in virtual public comment is similar to that of in-person. So far the board has been offering 10 comment slots that fill up fairly quickly. At in-person meetings it wasn’t unusual to have more than 10 people speak at a meeting, Gallegos said, depending on what was on the agenda.
The CU system also holds regular public meetings for its three regent committees, which are groups of regents, faculty, administrators and university staff who meet to discuss finances, policy changes and potential Board of Regents resolutions. Decisions and discussions in committee meetings include new policies and resolutions that are brought forward to the full Board of Regents for a vote.
Regent committee meetings are posted for public notice on CU’s website and, before the pandemic, were held in a conference room at the system office in downtown Denver.
During the pandemic, the meetings were still posted online and the public was instructed to email the university for more information.
A link to join the Zoom committee meetings was provided to members of the public upon request, McConnellogue, the former system spokesperson, said.
“Asking for access served as an RSVP system for the meetings,” McConnellogue said. “We were not trying to limit anyone. This helped us prepare in case there were a lot of people interested in attending a given meeting. For example, we used a different format for the joint committee meeting last August because of the high rate of interest.”
Gallegos said he was open to a change in how the public is able to participate in committee meetings.
“It isn’t about the regents getting together and the administration getting together. We’re a public entity, so any way we can figure out how to do that better, we should,” Gallegos said.
During virtual public meetings, Boulder city officials prohibited those speaking in open comment or public hearings from using video to speak to City Council members directly and did not allow presentations to be shown to anyone other than the participants using the city Zoom link.
The city cited legal and safety concerns for both of these decisions. Officials worried about what might be included in the presentations or shown over video and didn’t think it was acceptable for a staff member to be tasked with vetting whether a presentation was appropriate to show.
They also said the presentation rule was similar to in-person meetings where those in the chambers could see the presentation but those streaming at home could not.
For resident Patrick Murphy, who has spoken at more than 100 in-person and virtual open comments since 2014, his inability to share presentations during the pandemic was cause for concern. It “may be for legal reasons, but that’s a glitch on transparency,” Murphy said.
Tim Thomas, a Boulder resident who spoke frequently in person and less so when the meetings moved virtual, agreed with Murphy’s assertion.
“I’d rather err on the side of my constitutional right to address my government,” Thomas said. “And I have a big problem when people take away my rights.”
As the city worked to find its footing in the initial weeks of the pandemic, it dealt with some of the more common problems such as Zoom bombing.
“Anything that you could fumble, (the city) fumbled at least once and then sort of would make improvements,” Murphy said.
Further, in a virtual setting, there was more room for city officials to be selective about questions.
In one of the first Boulder Police Department town halls, for example, some activists shared screenshots with the Camera on social media of questions about the department’s homelessness response that were asked but did not make it into the question-and-answer portion of the meeting.
Regarding the process for organizing and answering questions, Boulder Police spokesperson Dionne Waugh said she works to collect and organize questions in advance as well as those submitted live via the question-and-answer function in Zoom. The live questions are copied to the document of questions. Other questions were answered through the chat function.
Originally, the department said it would provide answers to all of the questions that were not answered live but that did not happen. Waugh said the department ultimately decided not to provide frequently asked questions due to limited bandwidth.
The police department this month hosted its first in-person town hall meeting. While Chief Maris Herold said she was excited to attend in person, she wound up being unable to attend the meeting for personal reasons.
While Zoom provides accessibility, it’s not the best platform for understanding people’s frustrations and reading their reactions, Herold said.
“It’s kind of an awkward platform to talk to the community, but (the town halls) have been pretty well attended from the beginning,” she said. “It’ll just be nice to get back out in front of people. I’m not at my best over Zoom.”
Despite the difficulties and transparency hurdles, the coronavirus pandemic forced public entities to create a more accessible system.
“I think more people probably realized they can participate in their government this way,” Roberts said. “It’s more convenient. It’s easier. They could make dinner as they are doing it. “
“The downside is probably the public comment, but hopefully it did get more people involved in one way or another in the government,” he added. “And maybe that will keep up.”
The pandemic has likely changed how CU conducts public meetings permanently, Gallegos said.
“What it’s done, I don’t think the old normal will ever happen again,” he said. “I think we’ll have a patchwork of what we used to do and what we do now.”
The Board of Regents met in person for the first time since March 2020 for its annual summer retreat in Tabernash on July 12. For three regents who were sworn in in January, it was their first time meeting some of their fellow board members and university staff face to face.
The board is scheduled to hold its first regular, in-person meeting Sept. 9 at the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora as long as public health guidance continues to support in-person meetings, said spokesperson Mike Sandler.
The board intends to hold all of its regular meetings in person as long as public health guidelines allow, said Board Chair Jack Kroll, though there is flexibility for special meetings to remain virtual, like an upcoming Aug. 13 meeting to discuss tenure cases.
“I think everyone on the board, or an overwhelming majority, understands and appreciates the university community is returning to in-person learning, more in-person research and more in-person extracurriculars, and for us as a board that means meeting in person when it’s allowable and safe to do so, and setting an example,” Kroll said.
Initially, the Boulder City Council planned to return to council chambers on July 13, with councilmembers attending in person and the public participating online. However, due to technological issues, the plan was postponed.
Either way, Llanes said there is no legal concern about prohibiting in-person attendance for the public while the Council gathers in the chambers.
“The way that the Open Meetings Law is drafted, it’s pretty broad in the way that you can conduct public business,” Llanes said. “It can be in person, electronic or any other medium so I don’t think we have any significant legal impediments in that way.”
Roberts agreed with that, though he suggested a hybrid approach for people such as Murphy who prefer to attend in person. The city is working toward that but hasn’t developed a set timeline for it, according to engagement staff.
Murphy — a regular commenter at City Council meetings — said he appreciates the forthcoming hybrid system, which would allow him to attend in person or speak virtually if he’s out of town or if bad weather prohibits him from making it to council chambers.
Still, as soon as the public can return in person, Murphy will be there. It’s important to present to others in attendance at the meeting, too, considering many have “a bone to pick (so) they’re in an attentive mode to begin with.”
And of course, he will be there to keep an eye on the councilmembers.
“It’s important to see who’s asleep and who’s paying attention,” he said.