Looking to the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, a pair of Boston city councilors are pushing to make remote, virtual participation in public hearings and meetings a permanent fixture of city government.
Councilors Lydia Edwards and Liz Breadon will introduce an ordinance at the council’s Wednesday meeting, with the proposal noting that “resident engagement in local democracy in Boston has meaningfully increased due to remote participation allowances during the pandemic.”
Many cannot attend-in person meetings because of other obligations, and residents with disabilities face additional challenges in accessing in-person meetings, Edwards and Breadon said in their proposal. The councilors argued that allowing residents to participate in open meetings remotely makes government more effective and accessible.
“The inaccessibility of most government meetings is a pre-pandemic inequity that we can’t go back to,” said Edwards in a statement. “As we come out of the pandemic I’m focused on ensuring our city’s government is as transparent and accessible as possible. Permanently allowing residents to participate virtually would make it easier for a wider range of voices to be heard and bring our city’s government one step closer to the standards residents expect from us.”
Breadon pointed out that during the past year of pandemic living, the city has seen productive local meetings that are held entirely online.
“Digital access to government and civic meetings makes our city more democratic,” she said. “We cannot miss this opportunity to bring in the voices of caregivers and others who are not able to attend in-person meetings.”
The proposal has the backing of the ACLU of Massachusetts, which also supports a measure introduced in the state Legislature that would update the state’s open meeting law to guarantee that remote access to public meetings outlives the current public health emergency.
“Local democracy works best when all of us are able to engage,” said Carol Rose, the organization’s executive director. “Providing Bostonians with the option to remotely participate in city government meetings makes local government more accessible for residents with disabilities, and those who may not have access to reliable transportation, have caretaking responsibilities, or are unable to take a leave of absence from work, among other daily challenges.”
Dianna Hu, the chairwoman of the Boston Center for Independent Living, also supports the measure, saying ”extending virtual participation is a way to amplify the voice of the disability community in government.”
“This general movement, from being in-person, in the office, to remote work, that’s actually been an accessibility accommodation that the disability community has been asking for, for a long time,” said Hu, who uses a motorized wheelchair.
Boston has seen more than 60,000 cases of COVID-19 in its residents, a caseload that includes a death toll of more than 1,300.
On Monday, Mayor Martin J. Walsh said that 13 percent of Boston residents were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of March 10.