To the editor:
Peabody City Councillor Anne Manning-Martin expressed her opinion in these pages (”Peabody’s Zoom meetings shutting out citizens,” May 4) that online meetings were shutting the public out, and I wouldn’t opine on this myself except one of my colleagues chose to cite this on Monday night during our own online public hearing with the Planning Board with regard to zoning proposals that have been with us for several months. In a nutshell, I couldn’t disagree any more with her take.
Customarily, our public hearings in Salem have been very much a virtual Kabuki, with the same people coming to passionately plead either for or against the change, predictably so in nearly all cases. Meanwhile, I’ve heard from people for years that meetings were inaccessible, that they couldn’t take the hours away from their families to attend, that work kept them from paying the attention they’d like, and that they didn’t think there was any benefit to packing into a tiny City Council chamber in order to maybe speak for a minute or two.
Now, suddenly, this pandemic has reset the playing field. I look at the list of people who are dialing into our Zoom meetings and I see the names of Salem residents who previously couldn’t bother but now they can attend and even comment without having to drive downtown and fight for a spot in the room. They can stay at home with their families, watch, listen, and make their points to us. Many of the people who themselves have complained to us about the process of remote hearings have made the leap to attending and commenting using technology, and I think it’s brought new views and nuance to discussions that had often been tired.
Am I suggesting that we should replace our process entirely with technology? Of course not. But as we navigate our way forward as governments, we should be looking for ways to expand our process further, and to offer more ways to gain participation. For all the talk Councilor Manning-Martin had about the people who have difficulty connecting to meetings now (and I’m sure there are those), what about the people who’d been de facto excluded for a generation because families have changed (two working parents, children’s activity schedules, sports, and school) but our rules and processes had failed to keep up with them? We’ve been leaving them out for years now, even though the technology has existed to include everyone.
Fortunately, Zoom and other platforms aren’t just for videoconferencing users. In Salem, you can still follow the discussion on TV, call in via telephone, or follow it on your computer or tablet. We have ways to make it inclusive and I agree completely that we have a responsibility to make our business as accessible as possible, all the time. That’s a critical part of public service and we should always be trying to expand access.
Eventually, we will have some sort of return to a “normal-ish” existence, and I look forward to it. As part of that, though, it’s also time to really give a hard thought to how we all do business as government bodies and how we can make government even more accessible – and not just go back to the days when the only way to make your voice heard was to get in a car, drive downtown, and find a seat in a crowded chamber then wait until you were called on for a couple of minutes of speech on TV. Our job as elected representatives did not end because of this pandemic. We should always be willing to do the job that’s before us (which includes hearings), and when we do so we should always strive to maximize access. This pandemic is not an excuse to shut down government. It’s a challenge for us to work harder and make sure that the people remain included.
Ward 5 councilor