Philadelphia’s First Virtual Council Session
In light of the impacts of COVID-19, The Kimmel Group, Inc. was asked to design a solution for presenting the City of Philadelphia’s council sessions virtually.
As City Council’s technology provider for the last 20 years, we support over 200 users in 17 offices in City Hall and 11 district offices. We provide desktop, network and end-user support on a network managed by the City’s IT department.
Once it was clear that the pandemic may limit access to City Hall, we started looking at solutions.
Initially, we were working under the premise that the session would be a hybrid virtual session with nine members present (a quorum) and the remaining eight attending virtually.
After the “stay at home” and “social distancing” advisories from the State of Pennsylvania and the requirement that only essential employees come to work, our hybrid session edict quickly morphed into a fully virtual session after the official closing of City Hall to the public.
We were given a short amount of time to come up with a solution.
The requirements were straightforward.
A virtual Council session must:
- Allow all Council members to participate from home or their City Hall/district offices
- Allow Council members to hear each other, Council President and the Chief Clerk
- Provide for the stenographer to hear all speakers
- Provide access for residents with limited or no internet access
- Provide for the hearing impaired
- Support an unlimited number of public attendees (city population of 1.5M+)
- Provide public comment with the ability to put multiple callers on hold and to answer the calls in the order in which they are received. Also, when they call in, their voice needs to be heard by all Council members, the stenographer, the sign language interpreter and wherever the session is broadcast
After meeting with Council’s legal team and within two days, we developed a solution that met the above requirements. After a week of internal testing with Council’s legal team, we provided training for Council members and their legal assistants.
With less than three days to the first virtual session, we coordinated several mock sessions with all members attending virtually. Our final “dress rehearsal” simulated the real session with Council President and the Chief Clerk in City Hall Chambers and the rest connected remotely.
On April 2, 2020, the City of Philadelphia held it’s first Virtual Council Session with 16 of the 17 members participating remotely to approve an emergency $85.4M appropriation to battle COVID-19.
Council President Clarke was extremely pleased as were the other members and staff involved.
On May 18, 2020, the City of Philadelphia held it’s first Virtual Budget Hearing with close to 100 of the City’s leaders in virtual attendance. This work helped to enable Council to pass the budget before the June 30th deadline and also enabled Council to pass legislation that earmarked funds for COVID-related expenses.
After having produced over 50 virtual hearings using Microsoft Teams, we believe our solution positions the City of Philadelphia to continue to hold virtual council sessions throughout this pandemic and we look forward to supporting them in their efforts.
On a personal note, as a Philly native and son of former Philadelphia civil servant parents, it warms my heart to be able to provide such a solution after 30+ years in this industry, for the City I Love, The City of Brotherly and Sisterly Love.