The public meeting room at the Waitsfield town office was packed this week for a Waitsfield Conservation Commission meeting. Many members of the public showed up to voice their concerns about plans to use herbicides as part of a proposal to combat knotweed on a town-owned parcel of land.
The meeting was courteous and respectful – which was a welcome change from the uncurated dialogue that has been taking place on social media.
There’s a real and significant reason for that. It’s easy to be inflammatory, emotional and angry when you’re typing words into a phone or a computer. It’s easy to lob bombs into a conservation on any topic.
It’s an entirely different thing when people are sitting with friends, neighbors and fellow residents of our watershed. When we sit face to face with our fellow citizens, the conversation changes – and that’s a good thing.
When you live in a community as small as ours, we all know each other. We tend to be much more civil and respectful when we talk to each other face to face and (importantly) in front of each other.
That’s why public meetings and forums are such a great way to have public discourse. Social media is with us to stay and it will continue to allow people to hide behind veils if they want to, while lobbing verbal bombs and accusations.
As we all fall deeper and deeper into digital discourse, let’s not forget the importance of meeting to discuss public policy, public money and public plans with and in front of each other. Let’s look each other in the eye and explain our points of view and let others express theirs.
Our elected and appointed officials do not exist in a void, although so few people come to public meetings it might seem that they do. How can they know what their communities want or need or are concerned about if people don’t show up to tell them?
Had people stayed around to hear the rest of the conservation commission’s discussion on this topic this week, they would have heard their volunteer commissioners strategizing about how to make next week’s forum as successful as possible, so that people get heard, questions get asked and answered and so that there is complete transparency about the process.