Will COVID-19 improve local democracy?
A couple of Fridays ago, we started getting calls — tourists were treating Wakefield’s riverfront parks like toilets because the public washrooms were closed, and the municipality had put up ‘no swimming’ signs at the new public docks. That night, an email was circulated, and the next day, the La Pêche mayor, along with two councillors, hosted an open Zoom meeting to let locals voice their beefs and the politicians explain the thinking behind the controversial signs. Take note: on a beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon, municipal council interrupted their family time to hash out a potentially divisive issue with riled residents just one day after the issue flared. One day. From the comfort of our homes (some of us chopping veggies for kids’ lunches while tuning in on our phones), citizens, who might otherwise be in the dark, could join the virtual discussion and actively engage with municipal decision makers.
Love it or hate it, we are in the new era of Zoom meetings, forced upon many of us as a result of COVID-19. Much of the ‘new normal’ is worrisome, but public participation in official council meetings and informal discussions like the sign issue may just be the best thing that’s come out of this pandemic.
All of our local councils have been forced to make changes as they cope with this pandemic. La Pêche got in on video conference meetings open to the public right off the bat. Chelsea took a little longer, but has held two so far. Low has fewer resources and limited Internet, but audio recordings of its closed teleconference council meetings are posted to the municipal website the next day for the public to listen to.
There are problems: access to high-speed Internet is a big one; and even with high-speed, video conference meetings are annoying: audio cuts out if two people talk at the same time, faces freeze on screen, etc.
There are kinks to work out, but going forward post-pandemic municipal councils need to keep the option of tuning in online. This opens doors to people with mobility issues, parents with kids they can’t leave alone at home, drivers who don’t want to risk their lives during a snowstorm, etc. It’s good for local democracy because it increases participation from residents who might not otherwise.
When we checked in, the mayors of La Pêche and Chelsea said they are getting requests to continue. Mayor Caryl Green said she’s gotten good feedback from councillors and the public, and her council is looking into maintaining the video conferencing option long term. Even before the pandemic, Mayor Guillaume Lamoureux had been working on a plan to live-broadcast council meetings, and he’s pretty excited about more ways to increase transparency and participation using technology.
In-person meetings are always better, let that be clear. It is also Quebec law that they be held in person, in front of a public audience; closed video meetings are the exception only during this pandemic. But now that the technology has been introduced, there is no reason why after this pandemic is over, our local council meetings (and committee meetings, and informal “pulse-taking meetings”) can’t be done in person, with an option for citizens to tune in online. It would be the best of both worlds.