Washington Evening Journal
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Don’t get rid of Zoom at public meetings
HOLD THIS THOUGHT
Once a staple of early-pandemic communication, Zoom’s had a rough go of it with government officials in the last few years. Without a doubt, the tool has its shortfalls, and those flaws are quite noticeable during public meetings. Issues include everything from inconvenient technical trouble to the distraction of some guy doing his dishes on camera during a candidate forum, to difficulty identifying virtual participants to the fact that roughly three of the eight microphones in Washington City Hall seem to pick up any sound whatsoever.
These concerns have led some public officials, including members of the Washington County Board of Supervisors, to advocate the end of Zoom at their meetings, usually discussing the matter off-mic. Proponents say it’s finicky and annoying, or that it delays meetings as a computer fires up. These complaints are fair, any attempt at hybrid meetings will have its flaws, and Zoom is no exception.
That said, there are a litany of reasons why shutting down the Zoom feature is a bad idea.
For one, a virtual meeting option is useful to local government officials themselves. It allows department heads to stay in the loop, even if they’re too busy doing what they’re paid for to step away from their desk and run across town for an hour. For board members, options allow a quorum when someone is in Des Moines, or on vacation, or sick or whatever. There are other upsides the county would be wise to make more use of, such as the chance to reduce mileage pay for out-of-town consultants, like the city of Washington has done in discussions on the proposed CP-KCS railroad merger.
By far the most important element of Zoom broadcasts, however, is their utility to the general public.
For all their complications, webcams in government meetings offer a level of civic engagement that was virtually impossible 10 years ago and unthinkable 20 years ago. Anyone can hear the affairs of their local officials without sacrificing the gas, time or energy to go listen in-person, even if they’re out of town, sick, or occupied elsewhere.
That’s a huge deal, and this behavior should absolutely be encouraged, because civic engagement and transparency are essential to effective government. An informed public is more likely to contact their officials with productive, constructive input when something matters, more likely to inform other members of the public about what’s going on, and more likely to participate in chronically underattended local elections.
While I like to think I’m good at my job and that the Southeast Iowa Union’s (award-winning) coverage of small town politics effectively fills readers in, news media inherently falls short of the context and background and read of the room that comes from hearing unabridged dialogue. This is because there’s finite space on a page and limited time on a radio blurb. If people want super in-depth of context that goes beyond the news’ ability, they are entitled to it not only by open-door meeting laws, but by the fundamental assumptions of democratic government.
Zoom is an admittedly imperfect means to that end, but it’s good enough at a relatively low cost.
A price table on the company’s website says it’s $12.49 per month per host to get an account with an over 24-hour meeting limit that can host up to 100 participants at a time. With a minimum of nine license buys at a time, that puts the cost at about $112.41 per month, or $1,348.92 per year to get one account for public meetings, and eight accounts for whatever miscellaneous department heads might need it for.
For the sake of fiscal responsibility and easy numbers, we can factor in the “cost” of those few minutes of salaried staff time spent setting up Zoom every week instead of other work, and put the effective price tag around $1,500 a year to a local government in Washington County. This is still a generous estimate, because I’m not accounting for the minutes saved by every county official who can take meetings at their desk rather than traveling across town to listen in-person, a loss of minutes greater than the amount taken to set up a Zoom meeting.
In exchange for those taxpayer dollars, you get hundreds of people engaging in the democratic process every year. People that otherwise would have missed out on the information for any number of good reasons.
Maybe they’re a stay-at-home parent who couldn’t find child care that morning, given the shortage of that service across Southeast Iowa. Maybe they’re a county department head, busy with other work in their office across town at Orchard Hill or the Federation Bank building. Maybe they’re a reporter for The News in Kalona, where every second of Tuesday morning is precious, because that’s deadline day and therefore crunchtime for the weekly publication. Maybe they’re someone who just can’t afford the gas to get to Washington right now.
One compromise would be to continue meetings broadcasts over Zoom, but not accept virtual comments during those meetings for the sake of minimizing disruptive tech trouble and ensuring glitch-free communication. This is the status quo for the Washington County Board of Supervisors: if you want to listen, you can do so remotely, but weighing in requires in-person attendance. This approach is fine, though I should note that it makes public comments in favor of Zoom meetings pretty darn unlikely.
In my experience covering local government, most members of the public who attend meetings have no interest in commenting. This fact often goes unnoticed because those who do comment bring attention to themselves, but I’ve lost count of the number meetings I’ve attended where a chair has opened the floor for public comments to a packed room, only for nobody to speak up. By and large, people just want to listen and learn about their elected officials’ decisions without having to pick up a copy of the paper, or hoping to hear about it on the radio.
For these people, the level of civic engagement from virtual attendance is lower than for those who attend in-person. Still, it’s higher than zero, which is the level of engagement available to them if decision-makers take Zoom off the table.
Now, $1,500 may seem like a lot of money, and in this day of somehow-$12 eggs, it’s good to be fiscally skeptical of any unnecessary expense. But in terms of government budget items, $1,500 is an easy swing compared to multimillion dollar facility projects, or five-figure allocations to various non-departmental organizations in Washington County, or raises to the salaries of various elected officials.
If Washington County, specifically, were to stop facilitating online attendance, it would bring about one of two outcomes.
Option one: civic engagement would drop. People won’t listen to supervisor meetings because they don’t have time to drive to Washington on Tuesday mornings, probably because they’re at work. County affairs become less transparent, because news media can only cover so much, and people get less interaction with their theoretically most-accessible officials.
In turn, those people become less civically engaged. They are less aware of their local government’s decisions, less informed about local affairs, and less likely to interact with that government in a productive way. While they could theoretically get a copy of meeting recordings from the auditor’s office, they would do so at a delay compared to live listening, and would still do all the driving and in-person interaction they sought to avoid by attending online. They could also pick up a copy of the paper, but that costs money, and it doesn’t grow on trees.
Option two: civic engagement continues, and people start showing up to meetings in-person, because they care enough about their local government to do so. This is by far the less likely outcome, but even if it does come to pass, it’s got a major downside: there’s not enough space in the Washington County Board of Supervisors’ office.
On a typical Tuesday morning, there are 18 chairs for audience members in the room. At the meeting last Tuesday, I counted at least 20 names on the Zoom call, a lower-than-average turnout given the less-than-exciting agenda for the week. If all of those people come to the meeting in-person, it’ll get pretty crowded pretty fast.
For the sake of transparency, civic engagement, and my ability to cover meetings when I get sick, I am begging the Washington County Board of Supervisors: keep the Zoom meetings going. Is the software flawed? Sure. Is it a pain to troubleshoot? Absolutely. But it’s a service that provides transparency to the taxpayer and efficiency to the tax authority, and those advantages must not be overlooked.
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