Usually, every two weeks, I’m within the front two rows at my city of Bluefield board meetings, in the center chairs. All the board members come in and know me by name, some ask if I plan to speak about something that day.
Yep, I’m that person. I’m typically surrounded by other usual suspects of friends and neighbors. There is a good reason why we keep showing up. Local government is one of the most powerful forces in your daily life.
Although national politics get all the attention, city and county government matters the most. Ordinances on business, housing and public works have an immediate effect on the lives of people.
Don’t believe me? Let city sanitation in your town forget to pick up your garbage until next week. How long does it take before you notice and smell their failure?
Your vote here matters more proportionate to gubernatorial races. As a community organizer, I know municipalities can be the ground floor of issue trends. A new policy that passes can be quickly replicated to other towns, leading to consensus that influences state legislation. By quickly, I mean two or three readings (board meetings), making the timeline at warp speed, compared to an act of Congress.
The opportunity to make public comments and have elected officials face the public while making decisions is a true model for democracy and citizen empowerment.
We haven’t shown up in a while, because of COVID-19, which is a reason for concern. Because of risk, many towns and cities have closed meetings to the public. Larger cities replaced them with live-streaming meetings. Some might be viewable only during the event. People wanting to make public comment during the meeting must submit their comments to the city by a previous deadline (unlike live meetings, where one can sign up immediately prior to the start of meetings) and hope that their words are shared without being filtered or edited.
Some smaller towns have yet to adopt any type of practice that would make proceedings that are usually open to the public accessible. Even worse, some have continued to have public meetings with no precautions, leaving the immunocompromised, with underlying conditions, to weigh their risk with public access to their local government. The totality is a lack of transparency and accessibility to the people these institutions are built to serve.
In this moment of local and national distress, cities and county commissions are appropriating funds for public health, reviewing policing policies, setting business standards and other major issues that will affect our communities immediately. Those decisions should not happen in the dark.
This week, the small McDowell County town of Gary, where I attended elementary school and six generations of my family has lived, had a municipal water failure that left the entire town without water for several days without an immediate resolution on the horizon.
The pain and frustration of my family and friends because of this public failure is palpable and draining. Undoubtedly, some of them definitely want answers from their local officials. Meetings are not public, however.
With two of my in-laws contracting COVID-19, I doubt I would encourage them to attend a meeting, even under these dire circumstances. This should not be the choice presented to residents.
A good government is one that maintains transparency, accessibility and accountability. Cities, towns and county commissioners should make every effort to make meetings public and accessible during the pandemic.
Luckily, technology has met us in this moment to facilitate meetings held and shared virtually without much cost. Meetings can easily be streamed and shared across social media platforms with the comments of the public effortlessly added and read by the rest of the public and officials.
Morgantown has utilized Zoom to hold meetings, with residents being able to ask questions live. These platforms also have made it easy to have such recordings of meetings saved and shared with people who could not be present or attentive during the time of the meeting, further increasing accessibility to the public. Use the tools and face the public.