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For More Citizen Engagement, One Town Turns to Video Calls

A Miami suburb might be the first in the nation to let residents participate in -- not just watch -- public meetings from anywhere they have an internet connection.

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When Manny Cid took over as mayor of Miami Lakes, Fla., it came during a time of high tension between residents and the local government. The outgoing mayor for the Miami suburb of 33,000 people had been arrested for bribery. He was eventually acquitted but later sued to be reinstated as mayor.

Cid, a Republican, says one of his top priorities is rebuilding trust and promoting government transparency. He removed the wooden door to his town hall office and replaced it with a glass one. He holds Saturday office hours twice a month. Most recently, he made it easier for citizens to express their opinions and concerns at Town Council meetings -- even if they can't be physically present.

In January, the Miami Lakes Town Council approved an initiative, introduced by Cid, to let residents teleconference into public meetings. So if they can't show up, they can still weigh in on issues in their community. Many cities live stream public meetings, either through their website or Facebook page, but allowing two-way communication with live remote public testimony is rare.

“We’re making million-dollar decisions on a monthly basis and yet we’re not hearing from any of our residents,” says Cid. “The reality is that most people are at work or running around. They are dealing with everyday issues, but they would like to have their voices heard.”

Interested citizens can go to the town's website to download a video conferencing software onto their computers or mobile devices. The council then gives each remote participant three minutes to speak near the beginning of the meeting.

When Cid first proposed the change several years ago, it received some pushback from councilmembers.

“Once you allow that type of accessibility, you’re prone to criticism," he says. "Not everyone in public office takes that well.”

But in January, the council unanimously approved the initiative, which will cost about $500 a year. During that meeting, one councilman questioned how they might control potentially unruly comments; he also wanted to ensure the town would make the most of the technology by raising the public's awareness of it.

So far, the system has been used in one council meeting, with two people participating.

 
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Residents at the Town Council meeting watch another resident's real-time testimony on screens. (Office of Mayor Manny Cid)

 
Miami Lakes’ new platform comes at a time of increased demand for political transparency. As technology progresses, state and local governments are considering new ways to increase community engagement. In Burbank, Calif., the city council might incorporate pre-recorded public comments. Austin, Texas, currently has a live video conferencing program for residents to participate from public libraries.

Miami Lakes takes things a step further by allowing people to comment from anywhere they have an internet connection. The change is part of the town’s Imagine Miami Lakes 2025 strategic plan to create sustainable and technology-driven projects, says Deputy Town Manager Tony Lopez.

“It takes a leadership commitment," Lopez says. "We have a commitment to be forward-thinking versus reactive. We want to be a model community for innovation in the future.”

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