Well, here we are. After 15 months of exclusively online meetings, municipalities are now faced once again with conducting the people’s business in person, and together. And it feels simultaneously strange and wonderful.
Our most recent Brattleboro Select Board meeting was the last one to be conducted via Zoom only, since we are now required to abide by typical Vermont Open Meeting Law and meet together in a physical space, open to the public. Having spent the entirety of my year as board chair doing so over the internet, struggling with corralling the “Hollywood Squares” effect while also facing some very difficult issues for Brattleboro, I have some complex feelings about stepping away from the comfort of my home office and trading my slippers for real shoes at future meetings.
On one level, I am incredibly relieved that I will be able to once again see the body language of my fellow board members, shake the hand of constituents who attend in person, and feel the nuance of an in-person interaction once again. On another, I will miss the ease of joining an online meeting, easy access to the bathroom or kitchen, and the ability to quickly check a data point on my phone before making an argument for or against a motion.
But for me the important thing to remember as we move forward is that democratic access is complicated. Our year plus of online meetings has increased access for those who are more comfortable with the format, but locks out those who do not have the technology, or don’t wish to participate in that way. There’s been justified celebration of increased access online this last year, but not much talk about those we’ve lost in the process along the way – and believe me, there are just as many who are intimidated about online participation as there are those who think being there in-person, and speaking into microphone, is frightening.
The Brattleboro Select Board has asked our town staff to make our next meeting a “hybrid” one. It will originate as a meeting in the Select Board meeting room at the Municipal Center, but will add the Zoom meeting as well for folks wishing to participate from home. Once some of the problems are worked out, I’m confident that this model will provide an excellent increase in access overall. For any public participation around agenda items, both the physical floor and the “virtual floor” will be opened to comments and questions, and it will be up to Chair Liz McLoughlin to merge the needs of virtual participants with in-person ones.
Will it be a challenge to balance the needs of every type and ability of our constituents with participation going forward? Absolutely, but balance it we must. Access is essential to functioning democracies, and we should all be looking around and celebrating that in Vermont we have a strong, functioning democracy; however, our responsibility is to always be seeking ways to increase the nimbleness of that access to respond to the modern needs of our community.
Stepping back into physical meetings with hybrid participation is exciting to me. It’s both a return to normal and an acknowledgement that we also need a new normal. The pandemic has shown us, in so many ways, how some members of our community have been underserved in the past and how they can be better served in the future. Our next meeting will be the first step into what I hope will be a model for increased public participation with Select Boards across Vermont, and I hope our legislature will follow our democratic example as well.
I look forward to you joining us to celebrate our new format in a few weeks, whether it is in the room with us or on our big screen via technology. Either way, let’s embrace a new normal of increased access and celebrate an even stronger democracy moving forward.