People want more accessible, transparent council meetings

By Selena Vazquez

Source: The Press of Atlantic City

People were upset two years ago when the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to stay inside and mostly interact with others virtually. But since then, residents have acclimated to the convenience of having everything readily accessible online, including government meetings.

So much so that some people are now upset as their local boards, in a bid to return to in-person meetings, are canceling their livestreams.

“I strongly urge you to reconsider the rapid retreat from Zoom that went on here,” Levi Fox told Somers Point’s City Council last month. “Zoom was a major convenience, to be able to multitask, to be able to sit comfortably at home forming your tie dye, instead of having to come out.”

Fox, 41, insisted that if council meetings were broadcast online, more people would participate and know what was going on in their community.

Similar sentiments can be heard in Brigantine, where residents are asking the city to keep its meetings online even as they’ve returned to meeting live with the public invited.

The topic is one of national interest. The Bureau of Governmental Research, a private, nonprofit research group focused on government effectiveness in New Orleans, has called for the continuation of Zoom and livestreamed meetings, citing the practice as one of the positives to come out of the pandemic.

The research group said in a March report that the “use of technology to modernize the public’s access to meetings can only help strengthen government accountability.”

The Pew Research Center, a national think tank, also found that the pandemic and the forced isolation from quarantines led to a growing reliance of Americans on technology, from 53% near the start of the pandemic in April 2020 to 58% a year later. The relative growth was even stronger in certain age groups, jumping 10 percentage points for adults ages 18 to 29. Among Americans 65 or older, nearly four in 10 say the internet and technology are vital to them now, compared with three in 10 a year earlier.

That’s resonating in communities such as Brigantine, where Mayor Vince Sera said at an April City Council meeting that better access to meetings was on its way.

“I think we need to make sure that people have fair access to our meetings, and that they know what’s going on, and not just for our priority homeowners that are here,” said Sera. “There’s a lot of our secondary homeowners that said the only way they can see us is through what we post online, so we want to make sure that everybody has an ability to know what’s going on here in our meetings.”

The public has the right to attend public government meetings, and by law, the government has to provide people the opportunity to attend those meetings.

Sera said one of the investments the city is making is repairing its video recording system, equipment the city has had for some time but which has broken down repeatedly. Money in the current budget will fix it so meetings can be reliably broadcast, he said.

The Bureau of Governmental Research report emphasized technology’s role in strengthening the democratic process, saying it was a counterbalance to a common complaint that government meetings are held at inconvenient times or hard to get to.

Even with Sera’s reassurance, one of the issues Brigantine resident Anne Phillips questioned council about during the public portion of the Brigantine meeting in April was the replacement of the council video system.

“And that means anyone at any time will be able to access the council meetings?” Phillips asked.

“That is the goal,” said Sera.

Phillips also inquired about Board of Education meetings being available to the public, although Sera said the city’s budget and the school’s budget were two different things.

Others at the Brigantine council meeting, like John Coia, echoed the need for more transparency from council.

“Over the past couple of years I realized I had little understanding of how government works. So I’m here tonight to begin learning the methodology of our town’s budgeting planning process,” said Coia, who is recently retired.

“When I received this budget, I realize how overwhelming it is. Therefore, I’m going to really go after the low-hanging fruit just to begin the dialogue and understand how things matter, because there’s so much in here and no detail,” said Coia, who did not understand how the numbers in the revenue were calculated.

Council members offered Coia an explanation of the budget during the meeting but welcomed him to their offices in the future to take time to explain things further.

Back in Somers Point, Fox said access to public meetings would offer the public “more transparency” and knowledge about what’s going on in town.

Somers Point Council President Janice Johnston said the use of Zoom was meant to address the lack of accessibility during the pandemic, but it’s now being discontinued due to limited participation.

“We have had three residents speak to this. We have over 10,000 residents in Somers Point,” Johnston said.

Johnston also noted that council meeting agendas are posted on the city’s website at least 48 hours before the scheduled meeting date so people know what will be discussed, as is required by law. The council also provides the public with time to comment at every meeting, which is also the public’s right, unless otherwise closed by council.

“All council members are very accessible by cellphone or email for any questions or concerns,” Johnston said.

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