In the famous Norman Rockwell painting “Freedom of Speech,” a plainly dressed workingman rises to speak his mind at a New England public meeting; his opinion, Rockwell implies, means just as much as that of the suited businessman next to him. In a single image, the painting embodies the principle that’s supposed to undergird public meetings: In New England’s civic mythology, public meetings are allegedly the building blocks of participatory democracy, where locals hash out zoning, schools, and taxes, with all residents on equal footing.
It’s a pernicious fiction. As ways of collective decision-making and gathering public input, such hearings are actually terribly undemocratic. The need to physically attend a scheduled meeting is a huge barrier for people with kids, inflexible work schedules, mobility impairments, or language difficulties. As anyone who has attended one can attest, a narrow slice of the public tends to show up for meetings and hearings, one that is unlikely to be representative of the whole community. In Greater Boston, a 2018 study suggested, that means an older, whiter, more male constituency wields disproportionate influence.
After the pandemic broke out last year, the state gave local boards and commissions emergency authority to switch to online meetings. Although holding school committee or zoning board meetings online isn’t perfect either, allowing people to participate remotely has proved to be a big improvement, broadening the pool of participants. The Baker administration has sought to extend until September the right of communities to hold remote meetings, but why not make the option permanent?
That’s what officials in cities and towns, including Boston, are clamoring for. “Resident engagement in local democracy in Boston has meaningfully increased due to remote participation allowances during the pandemic,” said Councilors Lydia Edwards and Liz Breadon when they introduced an ordinance to allow online participation permanently. “Communities do not want to snap back to the overly confining pre-pandemic rules, and many are not in a position to do so quickly,” wrote the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which backs making remote meetings permanent, and also allowing towns with open town meetings to conduct them virtually.
It’s not just the quantity and diversity of participation that stands to benefit — frankly, it’s the quality of those discussions too. The Rockwell-esque ideal of citizens politely airing different points of view is unfortunately not always the reality at zoning boards and school committees, especially when emotional issues arise and the loudest voices sometimes dominate conversations. As Governing magazine put it last year, the traditional local meeting “fosters intimidation, monoculture, and groupthink.” For many people, it’s easier to express unpopular points of view from the comfort of home instead, and it’s harder for a zealous minority to drown out opponents over Zoom.
Against the backdrop of assaults on voting rights in other states, preserving the remote option for local meetings might seem like a minor matter. But in Massachusetts, local boards make decisions about schools and housing that have an immediate effect on residents’ lives. Before the pandemic, the state restricted the right to participate in those deliberations to residents who happened to have the time and means to attend in-person meetings. Going back to that old way wouldn’t just squander all the effort that local officials put into learning a new way of operating over the last year. Just as surely as a voter ID requirement or restriction on voting by mail, it would also put up a barrier to democracy.
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