Manny Cid, mayor of Miami Lakes, doesn’t take no for an answer. In 2018, when he first had the idea to utilize digital technology to increase participation in city council meetings, his fellow councilors could not be convinced. With a new council in 2019, he again pushed the idea, and it passed. Miami Lakes became the first city in the country to allow anyone, anywhere, the ability to contribute during city council meetings, and to do so in real time.
I first heard Mayor Cid talk about this initiative when he participated in one of our Mayors’ Institute on City Design sessions last fall. At the time, we could hardly have anticipated how much COVID-19 would change our lives, and, in particular, how it would send city governments scrambling to figure out how to utilize current technology to conduct remote city council meetings and core government functions. I recently chatted again with Mayor Cid, discussing the genesis of the initiative, how well it has worked, and what he recommends for cities that are just getting started.
TS: Trinity Simons
MC: Manny Cid
What was the impetus for introducing Zoom into your public meetings?
Back in 2018, a couple of years after I was elected mayor, I started to feel frustration that we were discussing these huge budgets, and no one was really giving us feedback. Maybe two or three people would show up at these meetings where we were making million-dollar decisions. There had to be a better way. We can’t expect people to come to city hall at 6:00 on a Tuesday when they’re swamped with a thousand other things. How do we get more folks involved? That’s when I first had the idea to let people chime in from anywhere in the world. My colleagues on the council were stunned, and the idea went down in flames. We came up with a middle ground where we let people submit prerecorded comments, but I wasn’t satisfied with that either. When we had elections at the end of 2018, it produced our youngest council ever, and I decided to go for it again. This time it passed unanimously.
You’ve been doing this for about a year now. How was the reception, and what lessons have you learned?
The reception has just been phenomenal. The first couple of meetings, people joined us from their streets, pointing out how unsafe they were with speeding cars going by. It was eye-opening. One of our first meetings after implementing it, we were honoring a longtime resident who had passed away. All of his friends wanted to participate in the meeting, but a lot of them weren’t mobile and didn’t understand the technology, so we went out and helped them set it up, helped to train them.
We had a few IT issues to work out in the beginning, but it’s mostly been smooth. These days we are having a number of other cities reach out and ask how we’ve been doing this. Every state has different laws regarding participation at meetings, but with COVID-19, the general trajectory is towards allowing more flexibility in how and where people can participate. When other cities find out that we’ve simply been using Zoom, it works really well, and it only costs $500 a year, they start laughing.
I think once cities have opened the door to this type of participation and this level of accessibility, they won’t turn back. In fact, they’ll continue to look for ways to be even more inclusive.
Speaking of Zoom, over the last week or so we’ve started to see some abuse with this open meeting format, or what is being called “Zoom-bombing.” What has been your experience with abuse, and what do you have in place to prevent it?
You know, we haven’t had any abuse. It’s been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve taken the position that it’s highly unlikely someone will take the time to sign up and jump in the queue with the intention to be disruptive. And if they do, we can quickly shut it down, no big deal. We don’t need a police officer to remove someone when we can just shut down their feed. When we first implemented it there was some concern about abuse. But so far we haven’t seen any, and everyone that has utilized it has done the right thing.
In addition to being mayor, you also own a local restaurant, the Mayor’s Café. We are hearing stories everywhere about how this has impacted the small-business community. How has this impacted you personally?
It’s a tough time for everyone. It’s tough. It’s sad. We’re down 90%, only open for takeout and delivery. The first week was good, but as this goes on, people have less and less disposable income. We are down to two employees, trying to hold on. We’re in a council-manager form of government here in Miami Lakes. The mayor is compensated as a part-time position, though I don’t know any mayors that approach it that way. But like a lot of other mayors, I have another job and that’s operating Mayor’s Cafe. It’s a challenging time for everyone.
Indeed. I have never met a “part-time mayor” that thinks of themselves in that way. The call to elected office for mayor seems to be all-consuming. Last week, Mayor Jacob Day told us how he sees a key part of a mayor’s job as “to be the city’s voice, to give order to the chaos.” What are you doing to keep morale up and support your community?
I’m trying to be as visible and supportive and available as possible. I’m doing regular Facebook Live broadcasts, where I’ll stay on as long as anyone has questions to ask. We’ve started a couple of initiatives through my office: One, called Meals for Hero Kids, provides meals for kids of first responders. We’re doing this through a partnership with Miami Dade Public Schools and have volunteers deliver meals to kids whose parents are on the front lines. The other, Groceries for Seniors, where we have volunteers delivering groceries to every senior in our community that needs it. Many of them have family members that can do this for them, but so many don’t. I’m basically running both of these programs off of my cellphone, connecting the most vulnerable in our community with those who want to help. Most of the time, local government functions in the background. People expect their trash will get picked up, potholes filled. But this is a time they need local government. They need their leaders to lead with empathy and compassion, to say, “I know you’re scared, but we’re going to get through this together.”
Featured image: Mayor Cid making deliveries as part of Miami Lakes’ Groceries4Seniors program.