Hamilton City Council members got a demonstration at a Committee of the Whole meeting last month of a new online engagement tool called People Speak that is “designed to democratize public hearings,” according to City Planner Matthew Rohrbach.
Rohrbach, along with City Planner Karl Bauer, explained how the city’s site, called Hamilton Speaks, would work. The site would not replace the city’s current website but would complement it. It is a software system designed to allow for extended public hearings that could last days or even weeks. It involves the city staff posting all relevant documents and information for public review and accepting public input by email which is posted by a moderator on an ongoing basis possibly up to a day before the hearing.
“This will make for greater public participation as well as meeting demands for higher transparency in public meetings and legislative processes,” said Rohrbach. He said more information should be available to the public earlier and it will be easier for the public to comment and participate in the decision making process. Links to the records of the live meetings will be uploaded to the town’s website in the same way current information is made available.
When a member of the public comments by email, City Planner Bauer will receive it and post it on the town’s site. Public comments will not be censored, according to Rohrbach, but there will be some level of accountability for “unacceptable language that won’t be allowed.” He said the Council would have to create a policy regarding what language is not acceptable. He told the Councilors that other cities using the product have seen that there is very little need for comment moderating. He consulted with City Attorney Karen Mahar regarding comment moderation and said she cautioned against limiting people’s First Amendment rights.
The software service costs $400 per month and will be used for all boards, councils and committees although the price varies depending on the size of the municipality. According to Rohrbach, the expenditure is already included in the approved budget.
Rohrbach said the city is also considering using the “Open Meeting” software for holding combination Zoom and physical meetings. This software is free for any government serving less than 5000. Hamilton’s population is currently under that figure. A camera was also budgeted for, bringing the total equipment costs to just under $1000.
If the new technology was successfully installed, said Mayor Domenic Farrenkopf, the Council could meet in person in the community room and the public could participate via Zoom. He said trial runs have worked well. He said you could see the people and hear the people well. The council members indicated a willingness to meet in person under the new arrangements.
GROWTH POLICY UPDATE
The City’s Planning staff has issued a review of the city’s Growth Policy as part of the required five-year review process. Based on the staff’s review and analysis, several sections of the current growth policy have been identified as needing substantial updates, revisions, and additions. Many of these revisions are needed to provide strategic direction for how Hamilton grows in the coming years and to lay out a clear path for implementation. Other updates are needed to respond to changing circumstances, namely recent growth trends and projected impacts resulting from COVID-19.
Considering these facts, staff are recommending a major update to the growth policy with the following changes guiding the update:
• Articulate and define the community’s values, aspirations, and vision as it pertains to growth.
• Better align the community’s vision and values with the growth policy’s goals, objectives, and actions.
• Provide policy guidance (based on community input) for directing outward growth and providing for infill.
• Develop a future land use map to guide zone map amendments and annexations.
• Develop clear annexation polices or guidance for development of a stand-alone annexation plan.
• Provide specific guidance for updates to the City’s regulatory framework including zoning, subdivision regulations, and public works standards.
• Organize the growth policy in a such a way that provides clear direction for elected officials and city staff and is understandable for the general public.
• Develop an action plan that provides clear and prioritized guidance that is linked to the plan’s goals and objectives.
• Develop a policy framework or conceptual plan for providing City infrastructure to annexed lands.
• Lay out actions that are clear, actionable, and prioritized.
The next step will be to apply for a Community Development Block Grant to provide technical assistance in the growth policy update. Grant applications are due on October 15, 2020 and it is anticipated that work would kick in sometime in winter/spring 2021 if a grant is awarded. If a grant is not awarded, City staff will work with the City Council and Planning Board on reassessing the scope of the growth policy update to ensure priority updates can be made in a reasonable amount of time that is in line with staff capacity.