What other newspapers are saying: Make remote access to meetings permanent | News, Sports, Jobs


Going back to the days when people had to show up in person at public meetings makes local governance less accessible and, therefore, less democratic.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic first sent millions of Americans to work from home, people have found that some things are easier to do remotely than others. Organize team meetings on Zoom? Simple enough. Online school? A struggle. Participate in democracy? Easier than ever.

Across the country, people no longer needed to clear their evening schedules to drive across town if they wanted to attend a public board meeting in their towns, cities, or neighborhoods. As long as they had a computer and internet access, they could just zoom into a public meeting from just about anywhere and listen or even participate in debates on, say, a new plan for bike paths or a housing development in their community. The days of seeing unrepresentative samples of residents in town halls finally seemed to be coming to an end.

But as more employers demand a return to the office, some municipalities are also trying to get their constituents back to in-person meetings. There is no doubt that doing so – without allowing residents the ability to attend remotely – would only make these meetings less accessible and, therefore, less democratic. This is why hybrid public meetings, which people can attend in person or online, should be made permanent.

Early in the pandemic, Massachusetts changed its open meeting law and lifted its requirement that open meetings be held in person. And residents across the state have since enjoyed the benefits of being able to express their thoughts to their representatives from the comfort of their homes. When there was a proposal for a gun store in Newton, for example, more than 500 people showed up at the city council hearing to make their feelings known about it — all over Zoom. It’s good and important public participation.

The problem is that the change to the law on public meetings was only temporary and was recently due to expire on July 15. And although the legislature has extended it until March next year, there is still no plan to make it a permanent fixture of local governance. (The new extension legislation at one time included an amendment that would have required all municipalities to permanently make their public meetings available online and in person from April 1, 2023, but that amendment was dropped.)

Some municipalities have resisted the idea of ​​the state mandating hybrid public meetings. And while some of these concerns seem valid, they can easily be addressed. For example, the Massachusetts Municipal Association, a nonprofit advocacy group for Commonwealth cities and towns, cited the costs associated with holding hybrid meetings as a barrier to their sustainability. And buying and installing the necessary equipment can indeed be expensive for some jurisdictions – Franklin spent $20,000 to host hybrid meetings; Newton spent $200,000 — but a state currently awash in cash can and should provide the one-time funds needed for cities that can’t afford to make the switch.

At the end of the day, it would be an investment in democracy. Public meetings have never been fully accessible to the public, and research has shown that people who attend meetings are more likely to be older, male, and property owners than the general population. Hybrid meetings give governments a chance to change that. The ability to attend a public meeting online would, for example, give many people with disabilities better access to the democratic process. The same goes for parents of young children, babysitters, people without a car or access to good public transport, and many others, including people who work outside of the 9 a.m. to 5, that is, disproportionately paid workers. Given that the technology exists to hold town hall meetings online, there’s really no reason Massachusetts shouldn’t transition to a permanent hybrid system.

For many cities and towns, especially smaller ones, this change in the way government work is done will require infrastructural improvements. But what better time could there be for this investment? If Massachusetts wants to govern more democratically — and transparently — in the 21st century, it’s time to catch up with the internet age. In 2022, that shouldn’t be such a big demand.

—Boston Globe



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