Virtual Town Meetings are More Efficient and Increase Participation
While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a test of the United States’ public health response capability, it has also been a time where City and Town governments have had to adjust and rethink their meeting structures in ways it never has before.
One of the biggest adjustments has been the advent of “virtual meetings.” Under the Governor’s Executive Order #12, RSA 91-A, the Right to Know Law, was temporarily modified to allow for meetings without a physical location, so long as the public could access the meeting. As a result, Town of Exeter committees have been meeting via Zoom since the pandemic hit hard in mid-March. The quality of meetings has improved as the Town and committee members become more familiar with the software functionality. Typical facility needs, such as leaving buildings open late at night, additional utility costs, etc., have been avoided as a result of this change, which has allowed committee members and participants to “zoom in” from home, or wherever they are, to be present at the meeting. The quality of and participation in virtual meetings has improved via sharing screens and information to the point where it has become clear that this is a better, more efficient way of operating Town government meetings.
As a result, the legislature should look seriously at amending RSA 91A in this legislative session to make this option permanent, as it provides several advantages.
First, residents gain better access to public meetings, plain and simple. This platform and method of meeting increases both participation and transparency, by allowing a greater segment of the population to participate.
Second, virtual meetings are more sustainable. No getting your car, no burning of fossil fuels, no risk of overcrowding too small a meeting room in cramped conditions (plus no reason to have to build a larger meeting space), no paper packets, and no utility or facility costs to hold a virtual meeting.
Third, virtual meetings increase participation. As one example, people with disabilities will have even greater access to meetings. In addition, virtual meetings have also allowed the ability to free up that preciously valuable commodity: time. The ability to “zoom in” from virtually anywhere minutes before a meeting alleviates the need to make the long drive home from work, pick up the kids, and then return to a facility for a meeting. Driving downtown at night in the middle of winter to attend a meeting with its inherent risks goes away. Citizens with children can now participate more effectively from home, instead of having to find childcare in order to physically attend a public meeting.
This development in technology cannot be overemphasized in its potential to have broader volunteerism as well as participation in town government. Since Zoom and its companion programs are easy to use, and smartphones, laptops, tablets, webcams and microphones are easy to obtain, one can conveniently access any meeting they want, right from their home, where presumably people are most comfortable. Meeting links are conveniently found on every meeting agenda. There are significant advantages to this new meeting format. These technological advances not only set the stage for greater citizen participation in meetings, but also promise to diversify the citizenry that make up key Town Boards, Committees and Commissions. Flexibility is the solution that is needed in a time where people are busier than ever before.
While it’s a shame a pandemic had to trigger this change, it has happened, and thus presents a great opportunity for legislative action to make this meeting format permanent, and change our government for better, for the long term. All the normal items could still be required. Minutes, access to records, and meeting posting requirements would not change (all of these are now able to be provided remotely, as well). Statutorily, all that would change would be the requirement for a physical location for meetings. If someone couldn’t access a meeting, they could contact the Town or City Meeting Host and the meeting could be adjourned – to my knowledge this has not happened in over 150 public Zoom meetings in Exeter. In closing, by making this change now, which would require a minor markup to RSA 91A, we can create a better, more efficient, more sustainable State, City, and Town government at all levels, and increase volunteer and citizen participation in our government. Once every City and Town in New Hampshire implements this change, they will see the instant benefits it brings, for the good of all.
Russ Dean is the town manager of Exeter.