For our story this week about how COVID-19 has changed things permanently we talked to many community leaders about how using Zoom for public hearings was working.
They all mentioned the awkwardness of people learning to interact on the digital platform initially – but also all mentioned that it improved attendance by board and committee and coalition and club members.
Importantly, for local governments using digital platforms for select board, school board, planning commission, development review boards, (etc.) meetings, the digital platform has meant that more members of the public are attending, asking questions and participating in ways they haven’t before. And people who don’t usually attend such meetings are attending.
Perhaps it’s of heightened interest in how our leaders are leading during a pandemic. Perhaps it is because we’re all on edge and want answers and information. Perhaps it’s because it’s so easy to participate from the living room or while making dinner. It’s definitely easier to attend meetings from home during a snowstorm!
Consider the pre-Town Meeting meetings which were held for every Valley town in the run up to the Town Meeting That Wasn’t on March 2. From one end of The Valley to the other those meetings were very well attended with participants asking cogent and relevant questions. Ask any town official or community leader if they’d like this level of participation to continue – the answer will be yes.
We are all better governed and better informed when we participate in the process. Maybe Zoom fosters that by making it easier to participate and if so it is important that local leaders figure out a way to keep that option available once the pandemic is over. And many are keen to do so.
But we’re not going to lie about the fact that we really missed Town Meeting this year. It’s the best and most local way to participate in town governance and it reminded us of last year when we had our regular Town Meetings right before the world went to hell.
Maybe next year there will be a live and digital way to participate when the pandemic is finally over.