My Turn: Public meetings for all the public – The Recorder

At a meeting of Greenfield City Council committee chairs this month, the question of whether to hold future meetings by remote access, in person or a hybrid or both was discussed.

Although the matter was eventually tabled, three of the five of us were leaning towards hybrid/remote. I am one of them. I’ve done some research since our meeting and think that it is a discussion that the entire community should pay attention to. Continuing to allow remote access allows many more residents to be involved in and pay attention to local government.

To quote from a recent Commonwealth magazine on the subject: “Although COVID-19 pandemic has caused untold hardship, one silver lining for many state and local officials is the marked uptick in public participation in government. Now lawmakers will consider whether to make remote participation in public meetings a permanent feature of civic life.” The magazine noted that many groups of people have been under represented at or absent from public meetings. These include people with disabilities or other physical ailments, parents of young children, people caring for older family members and people working long hours. All of those people would more likely be able to participate in remote meetings.

A recent WBUR report noted that the ACLU supports hybrid meetings that would allow for both in person and remote participation, calling it fundamentally an equity issue. Those with more resources can often more easily find the time needed to attend a public meeting in person giving them more voice on governing issues than those without the ability to trek to a meeting in person because of work or family obligations.

It is also a gender equity issue. The Brookline Selectboard has noted, “Although remote access has advantages for anyone operating under temporal, physical, financial or caregiving restraints, women are over-represented in the community that is most typically facing those constraints to attending (and or serving) in person at boards and commissions.”

A report by WWLP, in Northampton, noted that holding meetings remotely allowed a police review commission to offer real-time Spanish interpretation. One board member on that panel, Booker Bush, a 69-year-old physician who also serves on the Northampton Human Rights Commission, told state lawmakers Wednesday that he’s been more involved in the political process over the past year more than any other in his life.

Mira Ross, an Amherst resident who is blind , said she’s been able to participate in municipal meetings because of platforms like ZOOM and that losing this opportunity to be an equal participant would be a tragedy to Massachusetts.

In Dedham, “live-streamed meetings for the community have been attended by parents making dinner and residents of senior housing who wouldn’t normally drive to town hall at night,”says Selectboard member Sarah McDonald.

COVID-19 has changed our world in many ways. This can be an opportunity for positive change.

Greenfield has always been at the cutting edge of change. We were one of the first green communities. I believe in our IT department , our Chief of Staff, GCTV, and GCET. We can do this!.

This decision must be thoughtful as it impacts our future. I recently attended a program on the digital divide. 17% of Greenfield‘s population have disabilities. 21% are over 65. I realize everyone does not have a computer. Hybrid is the way to go.

Those with disabilities cannot achieve equality unless they are part of the governmental decision making process. That population is underrepresented in public office in Greenfield and nationwide.

I believe that the hybrid method for public meetings should be part of the new normal.

Greenfield should join the list of towns who are adopting a hybrid method for meetings, some of which I have listed: Brookline, Dedham, Salisbury, Northampton, Amherst, Newburyport, Northfield and PVRS, Wayland, Mendon, Belmont, Truro, Leicester, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and Framingham.

There are many more municipalities and they are not all wealthy.

Participation by constituents is just as important as the votes of elected officials. And that means all constituents and all public officials.

Ginny Desorgher is the Greenfield City Councilor for Precinct 3 and a member of the Commission on Disability Access.