It used to be that if you wanted to attend a public meeting, you had to show up in person. You got into your car, drove to the town office and, if you felt so moved, joined in the conversation.
But that was then, as they say.
For the last year, thousands of public (and other) meetings have gone virtual and it seems as if participation increased. It used to be that on any given night at a Board of Selectmen’s meeting or a school board meeting, the “extra” folks – those not directly overseeing the meeting – were few, if any. It could often be the reporter and the board members, and sometimes that would be it.
The ability to live stream meetings allows the public to tune in no matter where they are. Cooking dinner? No problem. Have to get your kids to bed? Sure, you can still tune in without having to leave your house. It’s a win-win for busy people who want to keep their fingers on the pulse of their community.
Virtual meetings also allow access to those who physically can’t join in person. For people with limited mobility, meeting attendance can be problematic, especially in older municipal meetings where full ADA compliance has yet to be reached.
Before COVID-19, Maine was one of only a handful of states that did not explicitly allow municipalities to conduct public meetings remotely. Some towns, such as Bar Harbor, held meetings in person but also used a third-party video service that allowed people to not only tune in remotely but also to view recorded meetings on demand.
Last March, Governor Janet Mills declared a civil emergency in Maine and issued a series of executive orders to address the public health, welfare and safety of its citizens. One such order banned large gatherings of people but allowed towns to conduct public meetings through “telephonic, video, electronic or other similar means of remote participation.” There are explicit provisions that require public notice and detail ways the public can participate remotely.
So far, virtual meetings have gone just fine. Sure, there is the occasional technological hiccup or the person who never remembers to turn on their microphone before they speak, but the ability to connect elected leaders and ensure the public can participate are essential.
It is working so well, in fact, that legislation has been introduced to allow virtual meetings to continue after the civil emergency has ended. The bill is currently working its way through the Judiciary Committee, and we urge lawmakers to consider it as soon as possible.
Right now, if Governor Mills were to end the state of emergency, holding remote meetings could end within 30 days. We believe that providing the public the ability to access meetings remotely is important and should continue into the future.