For all of the hardships it brought, the pandemic forced us to adapt some new skills and lessons we can carry forward as we emerge from the coronavirus era.
Take local governance, for example. Despite a public health crisis, many Berkshire officials noted an uptick in municipal meeting attendance. This was thanks to the necessary adoption of remote meetings last year, as local democracy the “old-fashioned” way — citizens gathering together in one place to discuss and act on the issues of the day — became too risky amid a deadly viral outbreak.
Allowing people to “attend” meetings digitally made it more convenient, and thus drove higher participation.
This is undoubtedly a good thing; democracy is best served by maximizing constituent engagement. But when it comes to local governance, some pandemic practices should be left behind now that it is safe to do so. Berkshires boards and committees should resume meeting in-person at a designated physical space. The Eagle editorial board recently called on the state Legislature to get back to doing the people’s business as it did before the pandemic, and for many of the same reasons it is time for local panels to do so as well. In-person meetings are more transparent and provide a better venue for hashing out tough topics and debates. They also give voters a certain degree of confidence and constancy to see their local leaders together in action — not to mention a way to assess their elected representatives’ interpersonal and discussion abilities. For all these reasons, there is real value in officials being present, and in the interest of accountability and government by and for the people, where they meet needs to be open to the public.
Recently, the governor signed into law extensions to several pandemic policies, including relaxed meeting requirements that allow local officials to continue meeting remotely through April of next year. It’s understandable that the state might want to keep this option in place in the event that vaccinations stall and COVID variants cause another case spike in the near future. We hope, though, that Berkshire boards and officials don’t take this as an excuse to let inertia set in and continue meeting remotely without any reasonable argument for health or safety. For the aforementioned reasons, the default practice should be to meet in-person, and officials should have a valid reason backed by data or evidence to retreat to the practice of meeting remotely and putting a screen between each other — and the people they’re elected to serve.
There is now an opportunity to get the best of both worlds at local meetings. The skills that municipalities had to learn over the last year means that for those that might find attending a meeting in-person more difficult — the elderly, those with disabilities, parents of working families — citizens logging in for a public meeting should still be on the table, even if officials gather as they typically did pre-COVID. Continuing to delay a return to in-person meetings, however, shuts out some for whom Zoom attendance might be less convenient — from constituents who would prefer to address their elected officials face-to-face to those who are homeless, lacking adequate internet service or simply less tech-proficient.
Now that it is safe to meet in-person again, Berkshire officials shouldn’t continue to shut those people out and unreasonably delay a return to normality for local democracy — even if the state says they technically can.