The intent was to slow the spread of COVID-19. The result has been a surge in civic engagement, with unprecedented numbers of residents participating in online city councils, county commissions, and planning and park boards.

The virtual public meeting became a staple of civic life in 2020. Local leaders say more people logged on to virtual meetings than likely would have shown up in person. Nonprofits that manage local cable access channels and cities' web broadcasting report jumps in online meeting viewership and engagement.

More than 3,000 online viewers watched a contentious North Oaks City Council meeting earlier this year. That's a robust turnout for a city with a population of 5,100. Hundreds watched the Falcon Heights City Council debate a controversial front-yard vegetable garden ban.

More than 200 people logged in to Ramsey County's virtual town halls on temporary homeless shelters at the former Bethesda Hospital site and Luther Seminary this fall. Suppertime meetings pre-pandemic didn't typically draw crowds in the hundreds.

At the League of Minnesota Cities, Deputy Director Luke Fischer says his organization is seeing a trend toward greater participation and more feedback from the public.

Gov. Tim Walz's emergency orders have allowed for virtual public meetings, an exception to the state's open-meeting laws. Fischer said cities, perhaps at first skittish, have leaned into this new form of online democracy and have received a "really positive reaction from the public."

When there's a hot-button issue, people pour into these new virtual town squares.

Violent crime, police reform and new building rules prompted thousands of people to call or e-mail elected leaders in Minneapolis. Contentious hearings on public safety issues ran for hours as hundreds of people signed up to speak, some for the very first time at a public meeting. City leaders struggled to think of another time in recent history when so many people had signed up to participate in public hearings.

"It definitely has re-energized civic participation, which is what we needed, " said Dana Healy, executive director of the nonprofit CTV, which broadcasts meetings for nine Ramsey County suburbs on public access TV and online.

CTV has seen a nearly 20% increase in online meeting viewership this year, with bigger spikes when councils debate controversial issues.

It's been a newsy election year, which could account for some of the surge, local leaders say. People have more free time to tune in to local politics with so many other activities halted. Ease of access is also a factor.

"The big reason for the increased public participation is the reduction of barriers," Healy said. "People don't have to get into their cars. They don't have to put on their pants. They just hit 'join meeting.' "

Online meeting viewership is up more than 70% this year for the nine Hennepin County suburbs, including Maple Grove and Brooklyn Park, that rely on the nonprofit CCX Media to broadcast their hearings online and on community television.

"Our online engagements have just been through the roof," said Mike Johnson, general manager and executive director of CCX, formerly Northwest Community Television.

CCX online engagements — including its website, meeting videos, high school sports, YouTube, Facebook and other social media sites — tripled to 30 million this year, he said.

Ramsey County hosted more than 20 online town hall meetings on how it is providing services as well as its equity work. Turnout has been strong, with 50 to 100 people logging in to each session, said Prince Corbett, a racial and health equity administrator for the county.

Corbett said he often hears that online meetings work for young families, who after a busy day don't want to bundle up the kids to go to a meeting.

"People can actually engage in these conversations and listen in while cooking dinner at home," Corbett said.

But not everyone is thrilled with the pivot to online democracy. It's not an optimal forum for people who need interpreters, Corbett said. Not everyone has reliable internet access or computers, he added.

There is something to be said for looking someone in the eye and reading body language. Ramsey County is the most diverse in the state. Building trust in diverse communities is challenging. Corbett said he hears that some prefer the in-person exchanges.

Open-government advocate Rich Neumeister said online meetings are a poor substitute for the in-person version, and he looks forward to the return of in-person meetings prescribed by open-meeting laws.

Virtual meetings give politicians too much control to literally mute or ignore critics and control the discourse, Neumeister said.

"Physical meetings are the way to go. That's always been the American way," Neumeister said. "Physicality is important to be able to talk and engage with your elected officials."

Neumeister said he supports a model in which residents can comment in person or online, but elected officials are required to attend meetings and face their constituents.

Technology glitches and breakdowns can impede online attendance. St. Paul's Heritage Preservation Commission reheard a development application for the Summit-University neighborhood in December after residents complained the original hearing in early October was plagued with technology problems that prevented them from hearing discussion. It also overlapped with a second online hearing on the same matter.

Online meetings have created a new way for people to give feedback: chat.

Nearly 140 people showed up at a Maplewood virtual meeting on the future of the Ponds at Battle Creek golf course, slated for possible redevelopment. Many typed comments and questions into the chat feature during the meeting, said Maplewood spokesman Joe Sheeran.

Maplewood City Council Member Kathleen Juenemann said she was initially hesitant about moving the city's business online. But Juenemann said she likes that new people who had been limited by their parenting and work schedules are now getting more involved.

The city recently formed a nature center task force, and several people told her they were able to join only because it was virtual. "We haven't missed a beat," she said. We are doing every bit as much as before, maybe even more."

Staff writer Liz Navratil contributed to this report.

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037