The coronavirus shutdowns have made many things virtual: school, work, church, even real- estate tours. Local governments, like other institutions, have an obligation to continue to conduct business, so for five months now they too have relied on various forms of virtual meetings.
Online public hearings and other meetings have become a common practice nationwide, using a variety of videoconferencing services. As is usually the case when new technology is rolled out quickly, there have been setbacks, glitches and unexpected consequences. Rural areas often struggle with slow Internet. Trolls have Zoombombed some public hearings. But overall the process has been a relatively inexpensive and effective way, particularly for larger municipalities, to continue public business in a challenging time.
The question, as has been asked in many contexts through 2020, is why can't this COVID-19-era innovation become permanent? Rather than return to the hassle of holding most public meetings in person, why not continue to make them remote?
The first advantage is that it reduces costs, which is one of the reasons many businesses are planning to institutionalize remote work, continuing it on a large scale after the pandemic passes. There'd be less overhead for governments — reduced costs for building maintenance, electricity, security personnel and so on.
Second is that it would increase public access and participation. A common criticism of public meetings is that their participants represent only a small segment of the community: the people who have time to go to public meetings. A Boston University study found that attendees at planning and zoning hearings were disproportionately older, wealthier homeowners. A working-class couple that's raising kids won't have time to attend these meetings, as they're often held during the day and last multiple hours.
A third advantage seems less obvious, but is important: It would go a long way toward preventing public meetings from devolving into emotional trainwrecks. I've traveled the country and attended many local-government meetings, so I can attest that while most of them remain calm and public officials generally act professionally, that can't always be said of the audience.
Government buildings are usually downtown, so meetings attract homeless people who have mental issues and can be disruptive. The larger disruption, though, typically comes from otherwise-buttoned-up residents who get inflamed over certain issues. They'll march to the chamber, metaphorical pitchforks in hand, ready to make the most of their allotted speaking time.
People in the majority opinion among meeting attendees play to the crowd, organizing chants, using their kids as political props and disrupting the discussion with noisy stunts (such as this "tree murder" performance in Seattle). People who are in the minority opinion but may have worthwhile things to say endure booing and hissing. For this reason some may not even get up to speak. It's a setting that fosters intimidation, monoculture and groupthink. Leaders are pressured into pleasing one loud interest group.
Land-use hearings are particularly prone to this. While there may be wide public support for more multi-family housing, since many people recognize the home shortage and affordability crisis in their cities, most of those who typically show up for a project hearing are single-family homeowners who live nearby and are likeliest to rile things up. Often it's just NIMBYism, but it's what elected officials get exposed to, compelling them to vote against projects that would help meet larger community interests.
The beauty of virtual meetings is that they reduce this emotion factor. If people could testify virtually instead of with their backs to a hostile crowd, they'd be more comfortable speaking.
Despite all these benefits, in-person public meetings are likely not going away. The main counter-argument is that, for all the people online-only meetings would bring into the process, it would exclude those without Internet access. And in-person meetings give citizens the opportunity to directly address officials who are making decisions that affect their lives.
A happy medium would be to hold meetings that are in-person but offer the option to attend and comment virtually. Officials will be able to hear a greater diversity of opinion, and members of the public will get the chance to calmly state their views while physically separate from the public-chamber mobs. The result is likely to be better public policy.
Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.