One of the things this long year has proven is that it is possible (if not always pleasant) to accomplish much of daily life and business online. Americans already spent much of their work and leisure time on the web pre-pandemic, but that has taken on new proportions.
Some companies have found that office space may not be so essential to operations as workers perform efficiently at home. Frequent business travelers question whether they’ll resume trips when the job could be accomplished in a conference call. The rollout of remote learning has educators pondering the necessity of snow days. Municipal officials, having weathered a crash course in web conferencing, are considering what role digital channels will have in public proceedings after we are finally allowed to gather en masse again.
State Sen. Trey Stewart (R-Aroostook County) has introduced a bill that would allow local governments to adopt ordinances or policies allowing members of elected bodies to continue to participate in public proceeding remotely after the state of emergency has passed.
The measure would allow “participation by telephonic, video, electronic or other similar means of communication” if the board has adopted a written policy governing how members can do so and given appropriate notice that the meeting will take place. Board members would have to be able to hear and speak to all other members and be audible to members of the public attending the meeting. Municipalities could allow the public to attend and observe using remote means, but the bill does not require that the public be allowed remote access. Meeting notices would have to specify how the public can participate be it in-person or online.
The bill could make it easier for boards, particularly in remote areas, to gather a quorum and quickly carry out routine business. Weather cancellations could become a thing of the past. Plus, there’s precedent. Many boards and committees have been meeting fully or partially remote since last spring. There is real value in allowing elected officials to carry out their duties even if they cannot physically be at the table.
The emphasis, however, must remain on what allows the highest degree of public accessibility, not on what is easiest for municipal officials. In some ways and with some boards, digital channels have heightened civic engagement. Citizens who might not be inclined to head to the town office for a dinnertime selectmen’s meeting may tune in if the meeting is streamed via social media, Zoom or on the public access channel. But there is something irreplaceable about being in the same room, face-to-face, hearing each other out. It’s democracy at it’s rawest and realest and it would be a real shame if that were supplanted by a 15-minute phone call, however efficient it may be.
Legislators and town officials should proceed cautiously when considering how technology can best facilitate open government in a post-pandemic world. At the very least, the same courtesies extended to board members should be extended to the public who may also want to attend remotely.