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Don’t fear government videoconferencing

Local government boards have been meeting by videoconference these days, and we have been covering many of them, enough to notice some things that work and some that don’t.

The biggest problem we have seen so far comes from boards that are choosing to block members of the public out of the videoconferences. The Lake Placid school board is meeting on Zoom with board members and school district staff only. Others can only watch them meet on YouTube and submit comments by email, which falls short of being able to participate.

Likewise, the Essex County Board of Supervisors is live-streaming its meetings on Facebook. Members of the public can add comments in real time, but that is not the same as addressing the board.

Most other boards we cover let members of the public join their meetings alongside the board members, as if they were in the meeting room. And we’ve seen nothing to fear from this. Participants mute their mics when they are not speaking and behave according to their expected roles. Basically everything works fine.

If, hypothetically, someone gets out of hand, the host can simply mute that person or, if need be kick them out of the videoconference with a single click. It’s much easier than dealing with a disruptor at an in-person meeting.

There is nothing to fear from letting people into these meetings. But there are things to fear from shutting them out.

For one thing, when you make it obvious you don’t trust people, they often distrust you in return. Any good politician (or journalist, or communications professional) could tell you that.

Also, maybe it’s just us, but during these unusual times we have noticed a certain camaraderie among the people who choose to spend their evenings discussing community business via videoconference. Instead of seeing everyone against the same backdrop, you see people in their own homes or offices, sometimes with personal trappings on the walls behind them and sometimes through unflattering fisheye lenses. It’s a little more intimate, and somehow, subconsciously, it has the potential to actually build trust and bring these people together. Of course, this depends on how the meeting is run, but we have seen examples of meetings chaired with a spirit of welcome and inclusion, as well as efficiency and fairness in taking care of business.

One suggestion: It’s hard for a newcomer to know who’s who at these meetings, so if possible, it would be nice to have some kind of text on the meeting screen of board and government staff members’ names and roles, and perhaps the meeting agenda as well — the kind of thing that might be available on a sheet at the entrance of an in-person meeting. We imagine others have suggested this, too, and are working on it as we all adapt to this new interaction.

Overall, we’ve been pleasantly surprised with videoconferencing, for government as well as work and family. It has its own pros and cons, but basically it works.

This COVID-19 lockdown is going to permanently change many workplaces. Employers might choose so save on leasing office space for so many workers to gather daily, and save those workers the burden of commuting.

We have been disappointed to see that the New York State Legislature has chosen not to do any work remotely, even though it is still supposed to be in session. The U.S. Congress is managing to take care of business and vote remotely, and so are most local government bodies, from county legislatures to village development boards. Some of the more rural town boards would like to but are hampered by bad internet and cellphone service. Albany doesn’t have that excuse. So what’s the problem?

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