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Coronavirus could revitalize local democracy

Towns and cities have been forced to connect with the public in new ways. They should learn from the experience.

Gabby Jones/Bloomberg

The mayor of Newton is holding virtual office hours. The City Council in Biddeford, Me., is meeting on Zoom, the now-ubiquitous online videoconferencing platform.

And officials in Missoula, Mont., recently held an online charrette, asking members of the public to help guide the conversion of a roughly 2,000-acre site dominated by hay fields into a new neighborhood.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced local governments to connect with the public in new ways and offered a rare opportunity to rethink public engagement — both online and off.

They should seize it. Indeed, the coronavirus disruption may be just the jolt that local boards, commissions, and municipal governments need to reinvigorate local democracy.


Cities and towns have long struggled to draw more than the usual suspects into local governance. A recent study by three Boston University political scientists, examining data from public meetings in 97 towns in Eastern Massachusetts, found that commenters were more likely to be white, male, older, and homeowners than the broader electorate.

Many of the best strategies for getting a more representative share of residents involved are decidedly low-tech.

Two years ago, for instance, the city of Boston started requiring developers and anyone else seeking variances from the zoning board of appeal to notify not just abutting homeowners but also abutting renters. The city also sends planners to cafes, bowling alleys, and breweries to chat with residents who might not show up for a Tuesday night community meeting.

In Minneapolis, the city has doled out “Meetings in a Box,” which allow residents to gather at a time and place of their choosing, talk, and fill out forms and surveys that register their views. And the small city of Dothan, Ala., has used public art to generate interest in local projects.

But the pandemic underscores the need for a more robust online strategy, too.


After social distancing strictures were imposed in March, a consulting firm working with Missoula to reimagine a site 6 miles from downtown quickly spun up an online charrette that included introductory videos, maps, and a chance for breakout groups to discuss plans remotely. The same company did something similar in Neptune Beach, Fla.

Marta Goldsmith of Smart Growth America, a nonprofit focused on urban planning and development, says these online gatherings will never replace the in-person kind in a post-pandemic world. But they do point the way toward a better online-offline hybrid.

“Some of these techniques," Goldsmith says, “are going to serve us well for those people who don’t go to public meetings — who don’t even feel comfortable going or don’t have the time or the resources to go.”

Certain cities and towns have a head start.

Cambridge officials and local developers were early adopters of an online platform called coUrbanize that creates dedicated web sites for individual projects, allowing residents to ask questions and pin comments to interactive maps.

Sometimes, the platform integrates text messages from people who stroll past the project site and come across signs with questions like, “What retail or stores do you want to see here?”

Tom Evans, executive director of the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, says the city is at the point where, for many residents, a project without a coUrbanize site invites suspicion: “What are you hiding?”

Development is an important issue in local government. But it is hardly the only one.


School committees and city councils have been confronting weighty issues of education and public health during the pandemic — and collecting public comment via Zoom or Google Hangout as they go.

That brand of participation ought to continue after the crisis passes; a working parent should be able to tune into a nighttime meeting while preparing dinner for the kids and pipe up when the moment is right.

One quintessential form of local governance — the town meeting — has been on hiatus during the pandemic, with municipalities all over Massachusetts postponing the gatherings.

An emergency state law allows towns to limp into the new fiscal year, which starts in July, without a town meeting-approved budget. But local officials are understandably eager to return to something like normal governance as soon as they can.

The 259 municipalities with open town meetings — the kind that any registered voter can attend — may not be able to pull off online gatherings; state lawmakers are weighing legislation that would allow for in-person meetings with much smaller quorums to handle limited matters.

But the state’s 33 representative town meetings — the smaller kind, composed of elected officials — could go virtual.

State lawmakers, then, should approve legislation filed by Representatives Michelle L. Ciccolo of Lexington and Tommy Vitolo of Brookline that would allow representative town meetings to do just that during the public health crisis. (Similar legislation is under discussion in the Senate.)


Of course, any kind of remote voting raises security concerns. But the pandemic could prove a good testing ground. And if the experience is a good one, remote participation should be extended into the post-pandemic period.

The hope is that residents who are disabled or serving in the military could participate. Towns could also set up satellite locations in senior living centers.

Technology is no cure-all for what ails our democracy; smartphones and social media, as we’ve learned in the last few years, can serve as platforms for misinforming rather than enlightening leaders and citizens alike.

But such tools are here to stay. Indeed, the pandemic has cemented their place in public affairs. Local government should do what it can to make digital technology a force for good.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.