In the last year, the coronavirus pandemic has required local governments to innovate in how we engage and interact with the people we represent and serve.
This included moving all public meetings online and, as a result, watching the number of people observing and participating in those meetings increase exponentially. With easy access to their local government, more people than ever are engaged and following local decision-making, and that is good for government and the public.
In Salem, we saw a 700 percent increase in public attendance at our public hearings after going virtual last spring, with public attendance at times exceeding the number we could legally fit inside the City Council chambers pre-pandemic.
These days, there is a lot at stake in those meetings that impacts our daily lives, from public health decisions to school reopenings and more.
Massachusetts residents want and deserve to have that same access to their state government. If 351 cities and towns can adopt budgets, engage in policy debates, hire and evaluate staff, and create local laws — all while meeting the rightly rigorous standards of the Commonwealth’s Open Meeting Law — there is no valid reason why our state colleagues cannot do the same.
The Open Meeting Law helps hold all elected officials more accountable. There have been times when a board or committee in Salem, including ones that I chair, has inadvertently skipped a step in posting an agenda or accepting minutes of a meeting. We have been justifiably corrected on those mistakes by vigilant residents or the media. And that has helped make our process even more transparent and more accountable. In other words, sunlight made us better.
Providing consistent access to legislative committee meetings, agendas, minutes, votes, and debates would showcase the quality of our public officials’ deliberations and the strength of their arguments — pro or con. It would also demonstrate the hard work and diligence regularly undertaken by so many public servants in state government.
We have strong, talented leaders in both the House and Senate. They have ushered in impressive legislative victories for the people they serve — on climate change, COVID-19 relief, public safety reform, balanced budgets, transportation, and infrastructure.
Allowing more of the public to observe the workings of state government enables every resident to more fully understand and appreciate the complexity of the issues before the state, the challenges and nuances of advancing important legislation, and the reasoning behind the arguments for or against that legislation. It offers a chance for residents to be persuaded or learn more about issues of great importance to them and provides legislators with insights, input, and suggestions from constituents following a policy or legislative debate.
Even during this pandemic, local leaders and the thousands of volunteers serving on boards and commissions pivoted to ensure residents had online access to our discussions. And it worked. The collective use of virtual meeting tools by so many Massachusetts residents has made it easier for residents of all ages to engage on issues they care about without having to drive to a hearing at city hall or hire a babysitter to attend a school committee meeting. They took part in the democratic process and they could do so from the comfort of their own homes.
There is so much that we’ve lost as a result of this pandemic, but one thing we’ve gained is the ability to connect and engage at work, in school, with family, and in government in new and different ways. Let’s not go backward.
Massachusetts should afford the same level of access, awareness, and accountability to the governing process on Beacon Hill as is required of the 351 cities and towns — and the thousands of city councils, school boards, and local committees — that make up the Commonwealth’s municipal governments.
We are one of just 11 states whose public meeting laws expressly exclude its state legislature. We are better than that. And we should not hesitate to prove it.
Kim Driscoll is the mayor of Salem.