Remote votes and muted mics: Development in the Zoom era

Joel Oliphint
A screenshot from a moment toward the end of the Columbus Development Commission Zoning Meeting on Nov. 12, which has held via Webex and is publicly viewable on YouTube.

“It’s very awkward to do this on a video chat,” said Michael Fitzpatrick, chairman of the Columbus Development Commission, during a remote zoning meeting on the evening of Nov. 12, which occurred via the Webex video conferencing platform.

The Development Commission operates under the same public meeting rules as City Council, Fitzpatrick explained to fellow commissioners, city staff, developers and citizen attendees before the final agenda item of the night — an application from Metropolitan Holdings for a mixed-use development at 18th and Oak streets in Olde Towne East.

For most of the meeting, five commissioners total voted on various applications, which sailed through with little pushback; 11 applications received unanimous approval and another passed 4-1. Oak and 18th, though, was more contentious. Some Olde Towne East residents have voicedcomplaints about the project, which falls under the boundaries of the Near East Area Commission. (Previously, the area commission’s zoning committee voted not to approve Metropolitan Holdings’ requested variances, but in October, the full commission recommended approval by a vote of 8-6.)

Before the Development Commission began discussion on 18th and Oak, Chairman Fitzpatrick recused himself, leaving four total commissioners. After reports from city planning staff and a presentation by the developer, three speakers used three minutes apiece to speak against the project, followed by two speakers, who were given the same time allotment for supporting statements. (The project also received two letters of support and 42 signatures, while the opposition supplied more than 32 letters and a community survey with more than 135 responses.) The developer then offered rebuttal and further comment, followed by a brief Q&A period among the commissioners.

True to Fitzpatrick’s words, the process was awkward. In the middle of a presentation by David Hodge, attorney for Metropolitan Holdings, “Call-in user 13” unmuted his audio (likely unknowingly) and can be heard saying, “Come here. Give me a hug.” That brand of oddity is likely familiar to anyone who has been forced to navigate work Zoom meetings or help their kids with virtual school over the past eight months. Barking dogs and crying babies are regular occurrences on video chats. One could easily devise a drinking game involving phrases like “Can you hear me?” and “You’re muted.”

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But when it came time to vote at this meeting, those virtual quirks became procedurally significant. At roll call, after asking several times for the vote of Commissioner Marty Anderson, no one responded. Anderson seemed to have vanished. “Sorry, she’s gone. She’s not on anymore,” said city staffer Shannon Pine. The commission moved on, collecting two “yes” votes and one “no” vote before getting to Commissioner Kay Onwukwe, who could be seen onscreen but not heard because of microphone issues. After trying unsuccessfully to speak, Onwukwe eventually gave an onscreen thumb-sideways vote, which couldn’t be counted.

The vote on the 18th and Oak application was then solidified at 2-1 for approval, plus one abstention due to Fitzpatrick’s recusal. After some awkward silence, the meeting adjourned. The commission’s recommendations will go on to City Council.

“I could hear my colleagues, and I could hear the staff, but they could not hear me. It was just extremely frustrating,” said commissioner and attorney Marty Anderson in a follow-up phone call this week. “My inclination at the time was to vote no, in no small measure because of the very strong neighborhood opposition. … The vote could have gone to City Council 2-2-1. But I can't speak for Kay Onwukwe.” (Onwukwe did not respond to requests for comment.)

Olde Towne East resident Sierra Swanson, who spoke in opposition of the project at the meeting, expressed similar frustrations. “Due to the virtual nature of [the meeting], someone who was supposed to vote no longer voted, which, in person, wouldn't have been the case. Someone wouldn't just disappear in the middle of a meeting,” Swanson said. “It’s just been a difficult process in the times that we’re in now.”

Swanson and other Olde Towne East residents aren’t the only ones claiming the digital pivot has affected the development process in Columbus. J. Dean Abbott is a member of the Merion Village Association, which has banded together with residents from Schumacher Place and German Village to oppose a controversial Pizzuti Companies apartment complex proposed for the Giant Eagle site at 280 E. Whittier on the South Side.

“We first met with [representatives from Pizzuti] in March, and that's when we could still have an in-person meeting,” Abbott said of the Schumacher Place Civic Association gathering. “There were over 100 people there, and when they put up a picture of this building, you could hear the moans and groans throughout the audience. … It’s a very different situation when you have a live audience.”

Anthony Celebrezze III, assistant director of the city’s Department of Building and Zoning Services, acknowledged that difference. “There is no doubt that it's a different feeling, a different vibe when you’re sitting in your living room looking at a computer screen versus having commissioners up in front of a hearing room and a whole group of people sitting in that hearing room looking at you,” Celebrezze said. “At the same time, the [Development Commission] can see how many people are on a call and can see the comments and can see and hear the testimony. And they need to listen to that and weigh that with what the applicant is asking for and try to make the best decision. Obviously, not everyone will be happy.”

Overall, Celebrezze, City Council Zoning Chair Priscilla Tyson and others say the transition to virtual meetings has been a smooth one. And Tyson noted that the virtual meetings aren’t the only outlet for citizen participation. “We hear from the community ahead of time,” Tyson said, referencing letters she and her staff read and receive and the calls they take. “By the time it gets to the floor, there have been many meetings.”

Even Marty Anderson said she isn’t greatly concerned about the abnormal ending to the Nov. 12 Development Commission meeting. “There is, I believe, a process for moving to rescind a vote. And I don’t think there’s a time limitation on that,” said Anderson, adding that the WebEx meetings have gone well so far. “I’ve been very impressed with it, truthfully. … I think the staff and Shannon Pine have done a wonderful job.”

In March, the state legislature passed a bill that allowed city and county boards and commissions to meet virtually, and the city attorney’s office then gave guidance to city departments for how those meetings should be run. And Celebrezze said that while the Board of Zoning Adjustment has certain requirements regarding how many total votes must be cast to constitute an official vote, the Development Commission requires only a simple majority, meaning the Nov. 12 vote on 18th and Oak would be legitimate.

The Development Commission is also a recommending body, similar to an area commission; its decisions are not binding.

Hodge, the attorney representing Metropolitan Holdings, said the oddities at the Development Commission were not intentional. “At the end of the day, it was a legal and valid vote. And I happen to believe that the Development Commission got it exactly right,” Hodge said. “I wish it could be in person. I love an in-person meeting. I hate doing this through a computer screen. I'm just another box on the screen during a presentation. I've learned to ply my trade by being in person and having boards and different exhibits to show to walk people through the various iterations of a project. … But we've got to do the best we can, given the difficult and complicated circumstances that we're in.”

Hodge said he has also noticed an uptick in neighborhood participation since meetings went online. While the platform might be a little awkward, it’s also a much lower barrier to entry. “[At in-person meetings], you've got to take a shower, get cleaned up, drive across town, sign in, stand up, say the pledge and then stand up in a room full of people. Not everybody is going to do that,” he said.

The debate over virtual meetings is, in some ways, inseparable from the debate over urban planning going on in Olde Towne East, the South Side and other neighborhoods seeing development across the city. One side emphasizes the need to slow down and embrace concepts like gentle density so that Columbus doesn’t become an anonymous patchwork of mix-and-match high-rises that don’t fit existing neighborhoods. The other side emphasizes the housing shortage in Franklin County and the urgent need to meet that capacity with more units and higher density; in virtual meetings, these speakers describe the city’s growing pains as both necessary and inevitable.

“Any time you have development, you've got people that get concerned for their neighborhood. They've got a passion for where they live. They love it. Some people don't want anything to change. Others want everything to change,” Celebrezze said. “We need to try to figure out: How do we adapt to more people moving here and yet still retain the characteristics that made this city appealing to folks?”

That said, there seems to be one area of overlapping agreement. In every interview for this story, regardless of their stances on density or how satisfied or dissatisfied they were with the pandemic-driven, online meeting process, each person agreed that, for the time being, virtual meetings are necessary to avoid spreading COVID-19. “It's the best we've got for right now,” Celebrezze said.

But unlike some companies that plan to keep employees at home for the foreseeable future to save money, the city intends to return to in-person meetings as soon as it’s safe to do so. Tyson, for one, can’t wait for the day when she can again be in a room with her fellow councilmembers and the community. “It's important to be in chamber, and people know that's their City Hall. That's their chamber, and they can come there. They can share how they're feeling, any concerns going on. I miss being in chamber,” Tyson said. “There’s so much value to all of us being in the same room doing business.”