Provo residents have one advantage that most other cities do not. They belong to a neighborhood that is part of a city-wide program that gives them a voice.
Provo City has had a neighborhood program for more than 50 years, offering a channel for getting information out to and receiving feedback from residents.
During the past eight months, that voice has been through online meetings and conversations.
Brian Taylor, chairman of the Sunset Neighborhood, was the first to hold an online neighborhood meeting via Zoom.
“For a localized, not full neighborhood meeting, for a smaller development, we had much better attendance and response than meeting at any locations,” said Karen Tapahe, coordinator of the Neighborhood Program.
Provo is divided into 34 neighborhoods that have unique differences. From the Joaquin Neighborhood in central Provo to the Grandview on the northwest boundary to the Lakewood Neighborhood in west Provo, each neighborhood is organized with a chairman and vice chairmen; about 115 chairmen and vice chairmen, in total, represent Provo residents.
By law, these chairman must have meetings with their neighbors to discuss issues, particularly if there is a new development coming to the area.
This is what the program is mostly for, to hold meetings on land use issues and to communicate the needs of their particular neighborhood to the city. Some meetings are required and others are at their choosing.
Developers are required to meet with the neighbors early on to find out their wants and concerns are for potential development project.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, these meetings have been nearly impossible to hold.
“While the weather was reasonable, several meetings were held in parks where fresh air and physical distancing could minimize the risk,” Tapahe said.
In the end, the best option and final answer for concerns surrounding the pandemic and decreasing temperatures was move to online meetings.
“Council staff offered to set up neighborhood meetings using Zoom,” Tapahe said. “Since April, more than two dozen neighborhood meetings have happened online.”
Council staff manage the technical side of the meeting and each neighborhood chairman runs things.
Becky Bogdin, chairman of the Lakewood Neighborhood, said 2020 has been a hard year.
“It has been a very difficult and confusing year for many of us,” Bogdin said. “The challenge of neighborhood meetings has been met in an online forum, which has been difficult for many of the Lakewood residents. They have been asked to reach outside of their comfort zones and learn, or attempt to learn, technology that they have never used before and/or are not comfortable with.”
Lakewood has had a couple of neighborhood meetings and is expecting to hold another in just a few weeks, Bogdin added. The challenge Bogdin has is to educate those who are technologically challenged on how to use the program. She said she is one of them.
“I am grateful that, even though this process is not the most ideal, we can still meet during these times and provide information to the neighborhood residents as well as get feedback as best as we can,” Bogdin said.
“We’ve gotten good responses,” Tapahe asserted. “People get better views of projects on screen instead of trying to see in a large gymnasium.”
Some meetings are being recorded for those who can’t attend the online sessions, as well, Tapahe said.
“Attendance varies online as much as it does with in-person meetings,” Tapahe reported. “Sometimes it is hard to gauge since there may be multiple people logged in on one account and people don’t always turn on their cameras. If you add in people who watch the recording afterward, we are definitely seeing higher attendance.”
It’s not always easy to get chairmen on board with the meeting. Some neighborhoods are neglected. There are some neighbors and neighborhoods that feel under-represented throughout the city.
The ease of having online meetings has helped to alleviate some of that.
“By holding the meetings virtually, people can participate without leaving their homes,” Tapahe said. “We have also been recording them and posting them in the neighborhood’s Facebook group so more residents can see what happened. I feel like we are reaching even more people this way.”
With the pandemic still in full swing and no access to the usual meeting locations, which are largely local schools, meeting online will continue for some time.
“One of the things I have noticed is people seem to be more cordial in the online meetings,” Tapahe said. “They patiently wait their turn to ask questions, and I haven’t seen the comments get as heated as they have been in some meetings I’ve attended in person.”
Tapahe hopes to see at least some parts of this continue indefinitely.
“Recording or live streaming neighborhood meetings has proven to be valuable,” she said. “Perhaps we can find a way to incorporate this online component into the in-person meetings once we are able to get back to them.”
Several more neighborhood meetings are scheduled through the end of the year.