WHAT LOOKED LIKE A TEMPORARY measure last spring seems now like it’s here to stay. You could call it part of the new normal except that it’s not new and it’s anything but normal. Call it digital democracy for lack of a better term.
From the time the first patient with Covid-19 showed up in Westchester County and the virus began to spread through the city, state, country and planet, it was clear that the disease could be spread wherever people gathered. Optional gatherings were forbidden or discouraged.
But the gatherings of municipal governments—meetings—are required by law. And in most cases meetings are also open to the public whenever county, town or village boards meet to adopt local laws or spend taxpayers’ money. So Governor Cuomo issued executive order 202.1, which allows government to conduct business remotely by phone or video conference call as long as members of public can listen to or listen and view the proceedings.
Some governments around Columbia County have moved their meetings online as the pandemic lingered and then flared again. There’s no single way to conduct online meetings nor is there a single best online meeting software. That said, Zoom is reportedly the most financially successful video conferencing application and the product’s brand name is fast becoming the generic term for online gatherings (think Google). The Zoom company has also had some notable security problems—hackers reportedly interrupted a Hudson Board of Education video meeting with pornography. But whether it’s Zoom or a competitor, a transition has taken place: The face of local government in Columbia County is a computer screen.
So? One effect of this forced move from government by people in a room to government by image may be a further widening of the gap in income and opportunity in this county and the nation. This county has pockets with some of the slowest internet service in the state. And even when better service is available, it may be too costly for some residents to afford. So the wealthy are more likely to be able to “attend” digital meetings compared to their less well-off neighbors.
There is some help available. In the Town of Taghkanic the town Broadband Advisory Committee has compiled an online Broadband Financial Help guide. It’s online at https://www.tgazette.com/post/broadband-financial-help
Every municipality in the country should have a similar list and the county should link to them all.
Before the pandemic people found all sorts of reasons not to attend the meetings of local government. Board members frequently concluded that the public didn’t care what their board was doing. Now, with the pandemic options in place, some board members have been surprised when double or triple the regular turnout shows up online for regular meetings. There may be a novelty factor that draws viewers, but even if only a few return on a regular basis, that’s a win for open government.
Here are some suggestions about online meetings. Make it easy to attend meetings online. Make it simple to copy and review recordings of previous meetings. Make sure there’s an IT (information technology) person to fix glitches that limit access to meetings. Make it work by sharing these services.
Some local government officials may be eager for the day the pandemic will be vanquished and their in-person meetings can resume. And while the need to defeat Covid-19 is a widely shared priority, there might be less enthusiasm for in-person meetings. The ability to participate through Zoom while sitting at home on the couch is likely to be a powerful incentive.
Local officials should assume that remote governing through online meetings may have crossed over from its temporary status and become our preferred way of monitoring the actions of our elected officials. It’s a stretch to think the public will willingly surrender this tool of digital democracy.