Planning May 2020
Protecting the Public Interest During a Pandemic
By Sean Maguire, AICP, CEcD
For more than 20 years, in addition to working as a planning professional, I was a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician. And if there was one important lesson I learned, it was to always have another way out of a fire.
Knowing how to adapt new challenges has served me well as a planner and economic development professional — and it is even more relevant today than it was just a month or two ago.
Concerns about public engagement have been central to discussions about how the planners in my community should respond to COVID-19. When the pandemic hit New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and local elected officials did what they are supposed to — protect public safety and welfare — and closed public buildings to prevent community contact transmission. Upstate, we knew that this necessary decision would impact public meetings and community engagement opportunities. We needed to identify and implement new practices to preserve, to the best of our ability, public engagement. So we started to adapt and respond.
Our solution was to employ the use of web-based platforms to conduct and livestream our bimonthly planning board and semimonthly economic development board meetings. These plans exceeded the minimum requirements for holding a public meeting established by Cuomo's March executive order, which allows public bodies to meet remotely during the pandemic, without requiring opportunities for public comment. Instead, we identified and implemented a way for residents with comments to register and join our meetings, putting them in the same virtual room as the board and applicants. People without comments can access the livestream, too, without registering.
We were able to invite the public to participate in our very first remote planning board meeting. A number of people provided comments without difficulty, allowing the planning and economic development boards to continue their important work. Even while self-isolating, we were able to gather in this virtual space and keep residents connected, engaged, and informed in their local government.
"We must fully leverage the collaborative, inexpensive, and easy-to-use technological resources available to us. If we do only the minimum, and if we fail to adapt, we risk losing trust in our work as planners."
—Sean M. Maguire
These meetings represent opportunities to reconnect people fractured and frightened by a global emergency. By restoring them, and by returning to some level of familiarity, we send a strong signal to our communities: that we can eventually get back to our normal lives, and that chaos and uncertainty are not the new order.
We've entered a new time, and planners must be ready to adapt. But we cannot forget our oldest charge: protecting the public's interest. That might mean going above and beyond what we are charged to do. Could we facilitate our meetings by phone, with no opportunity for public comment? That's what we were authorized to do by the executive order, but it wouldn't be the right solution. We must fully leverage the collaborative, inexpensive, and easy-to-use technological resources available to us. If we do only the minimum, and if we fail to adapt, we risk losing trust in our work as planners.
Our responsibility to the public's interest is the first statement of purpose in APA's Ethical Principles in Planning and the first aspirational principle of the AICP Code of Ethics. We cannot forget that responsibility, especially when we are faced with making changes to our processes. We must always first ask what is in the public's interest — and then adapt and respond accordingly.
Meetings in Action: Watch a recording of a recently livestreamed Town of Colonie public meeting.
Viewpoint is Planning's op-ed column. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the magazine or the American Planning Association. Please send column ideas to Lindsay R. Nieman, Planning's associate editor, at email@example.com.