Next week, the “people’s house” will finally be accessible by the people of Massachusetts again. Better late than never. After a shuttered stretch of nearly two years beginning with COVID’s onset, our Statehouse holds the dubious distinction of being the only capitol in the nation still closed to the public it’s meant to serve.
The Massachusetts Statehouse is home to one of the longest continuously operating democratic lawmaking institutions in North America. This out…
The Eagle on more than one occasion has called for the Legislature to stop dragging its feet and get the state’s highest democratic institution back to business as approximately usual. To be sure, a worldwide pandemic made necessary some extreme measures like closing the Statehouse and going remote with the people’s business on Beacon Hill. It has certainly not been necessary for a considerable portion of the last 23 months, though, as every other state in the union has demonstrated.
Still, the news that the Statehouse will once again let voters address in person the legislative officials they hired at the polls is welcome if long overdue. The restrictions that do remain — requiring masks and proof of vaccination — should whither, too, as the assessed risks posed by COVID hopefully continue to diminish. Also welcome is the planned continuance of certain COVID-era practices that leveraged technology to make the democratic process more accessible. Livestreaming and broadcasting informal sessions and committee hearings means that, going forward, we can have the best of both worlds: the expanded digital access adopted amid the pandemic and the traditional in-person access that citizens should retain whenever reasonably possible.
The ability to face our elected leaders and see how the sausage is made are hallmarks of democracy and necessities of good governance. That’s true not only at the state level but within municipal government as well. Some cities and towns have upped their local democracy game adopting hybrid meeting practices — that is, meeting in-person with public access while also allowing people to watch and participate remotely.
Some, however, are still dragging their feet. By The Eagle editorial board’s count, about a third of Berkshire communities are still holding remote-only public meetings. Just like the Statehouse, these boards should add their honed Zoom skills to the toolkit of accessible democracy, but they shouldn’t allow inertia to continue shunting public servants away from their fellow board members and their constituents. We urge all local officials to follow the Statehouse’s lead and once again reopen a more robust realm of participatory democracy.