As much as we look forward to taking our usual seats in City Council and School Committee chambers for in-person debates over budgets and class sizes, we recognize that state and local governments need more time to wean themselves from Zoom. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The advent of “remote meetings,” with members of local boards and commissions sitting at home and talking via teleconference, is a welcome evolution in so far as they are convenient. No longer must we squeeze into cramped conference rooms — increasingly stuffy and humid this time of year — to listen to the deliberations of a Board of Health considering plans for a septic system.
State lawmakers should act promptly to allow these virtual sessions to continue, at least for the time being.
The caveat — and it’s a big one — is the importance of the public’s right to access these meetings and engage the people in government working on their behalf. Accessibility is a central tenet of the state’s Open Meeting Law. The Legislature must ensure boards and commissions allow people not only to “attend” virtual meetings but, when appropriate, participate.
An emergency rule set in place by Gov. Charlie Baker last March to allow these remote sessions gave state agencies and town halls room to maneuver and continue their essential work throughout the pandemic. Things didn’t always go smoothly. One needn’t have attended many meetings to find boards struggling with audio problems, computer or phone connections, or fumbling to take comments from the public.
Most committees and boards sorted through the technical issues, and in many cases the result was to involve more people than ever before in their business.
“In normal times, City Council or School Committee meetings might draw 10 or 12 people,” state Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, told a legislative committee last month, according to Statehouse reporter Christian M. Wade’s account. “But the remote meetings have drawn hundreds of people. … It’s really expanded engagement.”
Maybe that had something to do with the pandemic itself. Local boards were taking up key questions about how to implement public health rules, and school committees were managing the details of remote instruction. Besides, with most bars and restaurants shut down, a local committee meeting suddenly held more entertainment value for a Tuesday night.
But the renewed interest surely is a function of ease of access, which has “increased transparency and insight into government operations and decision making,” Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, wrote in a letter to lawmakers.
“Communities do not want to snap back to the overly confining pre-pandemic rules, and many are not in a position to do so quickly,” he wrote.
The state Senate last week approved a measure allowing remote meetings to continue, as part of a package of bills extending parts of Baker’s emergency order beyond its expiration at midnight Tuesday. The House agreed to a bill shortly after noon Tuesday, and it was hoped the two could come to quick agreement over their differences. State Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, told State House News Service the goal is put something on Baker’s desk “in the next few days.”
Doing so is important to cities, towns and state agencies that just aren’t ready to resume in-person meetings, for whatever reason, whether it be related to ventilation or figuring out the seating in their old chambers. They anxiously await, with their meeting calendars in limbo.
This is also an opportunity to keep the public engaged that much longer. Hopefully it also leads a step further to discussions about how to connect boards and commissions virtually — while ensuring the participation of members of the public — over the long term.