When COVID turned the world upside down last year, municipal governance didn’t stop, but it did have to adapt. That adaptation could be key to making local democracy more accessible — even after we hopefully leave this pandemic in the rearview mirror.
As select board meetings and zoning hearings moved online, and officials and constituents alike could simply log on to Zoom to discuss important community issues instead of packing into town offices or a gymnasium, officials noticed an upside to going digital: meeting attendance is way up.
In Hinsdale, Richard Scialabba, who chairs the town’s Select Board and Planning Board, told The Eagle that “Zoom makes it easier for everyone to be there.” The numbers don’t lie: A recent Hinsdale Planning Board meeting saw about 100 residents log in to listen — more than twice the capacity of the town’s physical meeting room. That’s a considerable uptick in the amount of people able to join the conversation, and Hinsdale isn’t the only community seeing this increase.
“Every other town manager I’ve talked to is saying this is the highest amount of resident participation they’ve ever seen,” said Adam Chapdelaine, town manager of Arlington and president of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. “I see this as an opportunity to expand public involvement.”
We agree wholeheartedly. Local government, like all our democratic institutions, should be of, by and for the people. That means citizens getting the optimal chance to engage critically with the decisions and discussions that shape their communities.
The more people who regularly access that process, the healthier our communities will be. Letting folks log in to a meeting makes local democracy more equitable by making it more accessible. Vulnerable populations — the elderly, those with disabilities, single-parent or working-class households — are often disproportionately affected by policy decisions, yet they’re more likely to have difficulty physically attending meetings.
These residents deserve to have their voices heard, too, and without unnecessary hardship. Meetings via Zoom go a long way toward addressing that, so we shouldn’t leave the practice behind post-pandemic.
The coronavirus crisis has accelerated the integration of 21st-century technology into our everyday lives. A great leap forward into the digital age comes with ups and downs, but greater town meeting attendance would be an unadulterated plus for all our Berkshire communities.
Of course, this doesn’t mean in-person meetings can’t return — they certainly should, as many would prefer the increased connection of literally seeing eye-to-eye with their neighbors and officials. Even in the post-COVID era, though, municipal governments should maintain robust digital access options for local meetings so that the trend of increased attendance hopefully continues.
These practices were adopted on the fly amid a public health emergency, and as such they certainly could stand to be fine-tuned over time. Hinsdale, for example, recently bought a 70-inch TV that will allow meeting officials to better see remote speakers — a relatively simple measure that mitigates the disconnect some might feel in the age of digitally attended meetings.
These kinds of small but smart steps are the kind of proactive optimization that local leaders everywhere should be eyeing right now.
Local democracy is a wonderful thing — and the more of it, the better. Municipal governments should do all they can to foster increased meeting attendance, through the end of the COVID era and beyond.