*Top Image: Citizens participate in a virtual town hall meeting at VIA’s Admin building, one of four meeting sites for those without internet or computer access. Photo by Paul DiGiovanni.

When Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) attended several City meetings in October via video-conference, council members joked about his physical absence,  but those videos set an important precedent for new modes of civic engagement in San Antonio.

If City leaders can use virtual presence for official government meetings,  then citizens should be able to do the same.  SA Tomorrow, a planning initiative designed to accommodate the additional 1 million people expected to move to San Antonio by 2040, is offering citizens the opportunity to engage leaders through a series of non-traditional Virtual Town Hall Meetings, designed to gather feedback on long-term planning efforts.

Pen and paper were still needed to source questions and feedback from citizens at the meeting sites. Photo by Paul DiGiovanni.
Pen and paper were still needed to source questions and feedback from citizens at the meeting sites. Photo by Paul DiGiovanni.

SA Tomorrow held the second virtual meeting on Monday Nov. 30, as a way to source feedback and questions on the City’s Multi-modal Transportation plan.

Citizens were given the choice between registering online, which allowed them participate from anywhere with an internet connection, or physically attend one of four meeting sites set up across the City.

The event featured four panelists located at the Plaza de Armas City Center including: Council members Nirenberg and Ray Lopez (D6), and Dr. Afamia Elnakat of UTSA and Darryl Byrd, founding principal, ULTRAte Consulting LLC.

Citizens submitted questions via web chat while panelists answered them on a live camera feed. Questions were also taken from social media using the #TalkingTransportation hashtag.

More than 200 citizens registered for the meeting and about 100 citizens actually showed up, said Terry Bellamy, assistant director of the Transportation and Capital Improvements Department (TCI). Though that seems like a relatively small win, those are bigger numbers compared to those seen at most town hall meetings.

Click here to listen to full audio from the meeting.

Why have virtual town hall meetings?

Virtual meetings are used every day in the private and public sector to provide more convenient meeting options. Face-to-face meetings are still important, but the efficiency of virtual calls enables more people to participate in more meetings?—?something we can’t ignore in local government.

“The intent of the virtual town hall meetings is to try to get people who normally wouldn’t come out to a meeting to hear some different voices,  and see how the community takes to this,” said Bellamy. “One of the key things when you are doing a major plan is to try to get as much input as you can get.”

With the growing acceptance of virtual communication, online meetings may be the best way to gather input from citizens. The virtual meeting method is more convenient and comfortable for many people, said Byrd.

The Future of Virtual Civic Engagement in San Antonio

Countless cities across the United States have held virtual town hall meetings. San Antonio is actually a little late to the virtual party, but could pave the way by integrating virtual components into official City meetings.

Several panelists noted that the online and virtual components of civic engagement could benefit local government.

“I think there is a real opportunity for us to be forward-thinking about the way we use technology to engage the public and boost civic participation in our city,” Nirenberg said.

Working with Cisco, the City of San Antonio launched the Smart City Project to enhance how City services are delivered and to reduce the need for Citizens to come downtown to resolve government matters. The efforts to introduce video teleconferencing into government have been focused on Municipal Courts, but civic engagement could be the next step in City planning innovation.

“I have started working with city leaders to explore ways to increase engagement through technology,” said Nirenberg. “This is an opportunity made feasible by our work with Cisco and by our progress in lighting up the municipal broadband network.”

For now, SA Tomorrow plans on doing more informal virtual meetings to discuss their multi-modal transportation plan with citizens.

City officials plan to host other types of virtual meetings throughout the SA Tomorrow planning process, allowing for civic engagement and public feedback. Click here to read the latest updates from SA Tomorrow.

*Top Image: Citizens participate in a virtual town hall meeting at VIA’s Admin building, one of four meeting sites for those without internet or computer access.  Photo by Paul DiGiovanni.

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SA Tomorrow: It’s Your Turn to Plan San Antonio’s Future

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Commentary: Transportation is a Quality of Life Issue


Paul DiGiovanni

Paul DiGiovanni is an independent web marketing professional. He is the founder and discussion moderator of Ideas for CoSA.