April 21, 2024

Local Government Must Be Personal Not Remote 

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There is nothing like a packed meeting room to get the attention of elected officials. It’s a rare occurrence, but it is representative democracy at its best. Energy pulses through the room in the hum of conversation preceding a meeting. It’s infectious and influential. It’s intimidating. It’s eye-to-eye and personal.

This energy can’t be felt through a remote connection.

A crowd can gather to urge support or demand rejection of a proposed action. At times, it speaks with one voice; at others, it is divided into support or opposition to an action.

A crowd tests the resolve of elected officials. It tests their knowledge and makes them justify a proposal. It can expose a lack of homework and reasoning behind a decision.

It tests an elected official’s sense of duty.

An elected official owes his constituents “his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience,” British statesman Edmund Burke wrote in 1774. “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment, and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

But sticking with an informed stance in the face of impassioned and raised voices takes courage. At these moments, we see the character of those who represent us. It’s harder for the quality of character to be tested and revealed when an elected official joins by video screen from a thousand miles away.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck late in 2019 and accelerated in the spring of 2020, it accelerated the development and use of remote meeting technology. Families used it to stay connected, making citizens familiar with its use. Local governments relied on it to continue meeting to address the many challenges the pandemic created for their constituents. 

Remote access to public meetings is now a regular service for many local governments. Some use it routinely, while others use it when a member joins from another location.

However, there are rules for elected officials participating remotely at a meeting. Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law sets out the following requirements:

– All public body members must be able to hear and see the person joining a meeting remotely. The person joining remotely must be able to see and hear all the testimony presented at a meeting.

– There must be at least one member of the elected body in the regular meeting room of the public body. This means four city council members could be calling in from a remote location.

– All votes must be made by roll call rather than voice vote.

– The location of a person joining remotely must be made public ahead of the meeting and that location must be open to the public. That means if the person is joining from a home in Phoenix, AZ, the home is accessible to anyone who wants to “attend” the meeting from that location. Notice of the location is required three days before the meeting.

– There are some exceptions to these rules, and members are given three times not to allow access to their meeting place for health or other personal reasons.

Public bodies are not required to provide remote access to citizens sitting at home for every meeting, but if an elected member is joining remotely, the technology for citizens to join is already in place.

An elected official spending weeks or months away does a disservice to his constituents and creates considerable inconvenience for staff who have to coordinate connections for many committee meetings as well.

While away, an elected official is removed from the experiences of his or her constituents – their frustration with unplowed streets, the new valuation on their home, or their concerns about a lack of daycare in a community. They miss out on chance meetings with constituents in the café, grocery store, or in passing on the sidewalk.

While the technology for remote connections has advanced, there is still no replacement for being present in person.

People multi-task when they join a meeting remotely. As they do, their attention is split. Read the scrolling bar across the bottom of a news channel, then try recalling the discussion that took place at the same time. It’s likely you won’t. Your mind was elsewhere.

“Yet for all those advances, research shows time and again there’s simply no substitute for meeting face to face,” a story in The Washington Post says. “In-person meetings provide a sense of intimacy, connection, and empathy that is difficult to replicate via video,” Paul Axtell, corporate trainer and author of the book “Meetings Matter,” is quoted.

MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab found that people who participated in groups in person performed 35% better than those who met remotely. The variation was “explained by the number of times team members actually spoke face-to-face.”

Our local governments set the rules for how strict or loose the requirements are for in-person participation. Will the public body limit how many members of its body must be present in person for a meeting to take place? Three out of five for a city council or county board? Four of seven for a school board meeting? Or, as allowed, just one?

Knowing a crowd will show up, will some elected officials say they will be gone and join remotely to avoid the confrontation?

Some argue a quorum should be physically present to ensure actions can move forward. If a group of citizens is present for a public hearing, or a consultant is giving a critical presentation, and the meeting can’t take place because of a technical glitch, it creates unnecessary and possibly costly delays.

For accountability, for a connection to their community, to experience in person the concerns of their constituents, to feel the energy and influence of a crowd in a packed meeting room, elected officials should be required to participate in person most of the time. Representative democracy demands face-to-face interaction between constituents and those who represent them.

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