Imagine you are a single parent. Imagine you don’t have the extra cash to pay a babysitter for 3-4 hours (or more) several times every month to attend municipal meetings. Imagine you have mobility issues and it is difficult for you to travel to an in-person meeting. Imagine you just aren’t comfortable attending a formal meeting in a public space. Unfortunately, too many residents in these situations feel they don’t have an option to interact and have their voices heard. There HAS to be a way to expand participation with your local elected officials.
Public engagement is a HUGE part of municipal governance. Without an option to meet in person, COVID has pushed us into the virtual world for almost everything. While it presents some minor challenges, I am personally grateful we’ve been forced to incorporate this new medium for town meetings. Leveraging this technology allows the single parent to be present without spending money for a sitter; it allows those with mobility issues to fully engage in the public process; it gives those who are hesitant to be present in a formal public meeting an option to participate in a way that’s comfortable for them. This leads to more real-time participation, increased awareness of topics being discussed, and allows those who can’t be physically present to have their voices heard during the actual meeting.
It is my firm belief that allowing for virtual participation in public meetings needs to continue in the post-COVID world in addition to in-person meetings, increasing the number of public forums, and allowing for a multi-pronged approach to diversify participation. With that said, let us not forget that there are those without the capability to connect virtually; I will also advocate strongly that the phone number to call into these meetings be made publicly available on the agenda. We need to remove obstacles which deter participation.