In just a matter of months, much of our work and social lives have been happening through video conference or through phone conversations. The proliferation of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) has forced us to adjust our daily routines.
Due to social distancing measures meant to slow the virus' spread, instead of working in a shared office we are working from home, often turning our kitchens or spare rooms into makeshift offices. We are using the power of technology — Zoom, FaceTime and countless other apps — to socialize with our families, friends and neighbors in lieu of social gatherings.
Even amid a pandemic, life must go on. That's true of those who govern us on local boards of commissioners, school boards and town and city councils.
When the virus began making headlines here in mid-March, many of these elected groups canceled or postponed public meetings. Other boards and councils closed their meetings to the public, allowing us to watch the meetings through a live-stream or on Facebook. We applaud these moves in the interest of public health.
Most of our local elected officials have not reopened their meetings to the public. The Whitfield County Board of Commissioners has done a fine job of live-streaming their meetings. This past Monday, the Dalton City Council held its first meeting in front of a live audience. The city took measures to meet Gov. Brian Kemp's public health emergency declaration, such as limiting the number of attendees to about 40 and requiring them to sit at least 6 feet apart. The meeting was not live-streamed, but city officials are looking to do just that in the future.
As we've seen, technology is rapidly changing our lives. Instead of bringing people to the meetings, we should bring the meetings to the people. That means live-streaming as many public meetings as possible. We shouldn't, for example, think of a school board meeting on a Monday at 6 p.m. as a static moment in time.
Rather, we should view these meetings with a broader scope. By live-streaming, then storing replays of the meetings online, the public is free to watch them on their terms. If a city of Dalton resident can't make a Monday night meeting, he could watch the replay on his iPad over his cup of coffee the next morning. Or, she could view the meeting on her phone while she waits in the school pickup line.
Live-streaming solves the concern many have of being out in public in these times. It opens meetings up to those who work different shifts — as we live in a largely industrial area — and can't attend meetings because they're often held in the early evening. Many residents who have families are busy with ball games, an emergency run to the grocery store for dinner or shuttling their children to and from after-school activities.
We view live-streaming as another tool for local government to disseminate information. Live-streaming meetings is not a replacement for live meetings. We still must allow residents to address our local government officials in person. While live-streams allow for questions, the questions often must be emailed in advance. That allows the questions to be screened or left out entirely.
We understand there are costs to live-streaming government meetings, but those relatively negligible costs are a sound investment to increase public participation in local government. We also recognize there are issues with archiving the videos to conform to public records laws. Those issues can be worked out.
We often bemoan the lack of public participation at our local governmental meetings. By using technology to bring the meetings to the people, perhaps the people's interest in local government — and those who govern us — will start to increase. It's worth a shot.