Since the COVID-19 pandemic first sent millions of Americans to work from home, people found that some things were easier to do remotely than others. Holding team meetings over Zoom? Simple enough. Online schooling? A struggle. Participating in democracy? Easier than ever.
Across the country, people no longer had to clear their evening schedules to schlep all the way to the other end of town if they wanted to attend a public board meeting in their cities, towns, or neighborhoods. So long as they had a computer and Internet access, they could simply Zoom into a public meeting from just about anywhere and listen in on or even partake in debates about, say, a new plan for bike lanes or a housing development in their community. The days of seeing unrepresentative samples of residents at town halls seemed to finally be ending.
But as more and more employers demand a return to the office, some municipalities are trying to make their constituents return to in-person meetings too. There is no doubt that doing so — without keeping an option for residents to attend remotely — would only make those meetings less accessible, and, as a result, less democratic. That’s why hybrid public meetings, where people can attend either in-person or online, should be made permanent.
Early on in the pandemic, Massachusetts changed its Open Meeting Law and lifted its requirement that public meetings be held in person. And residents across the state have since enjoyed the benefits of being able to voice their thoughts to their representatives from the comfort of their own homes. When there was a proposal for a gun store in Newton, for example, more than 500 people showed up to the city council hearing to make their feelings about it known — all over Zoom. That’s good, and important, public participation.
The problem is that the change in the Open Meeting Law was only temporary, and it was most recently set to expire on July 15. And while the Legislature extended it through March of next year, there is still no plan to make hybrid public meetings a permanent fixture of local governance. (The legislation for the new extension did at one point include an amendment that would have required that all municipalities permanently make their public meetings accessible both online and in-person starting April 1, 2023, but that amendment was dropped.)
Some municipalities have resisted the idea of the state mandating hybrid public meetings. And while some of those concerns seem valid, they can easily be addressed. For example, the Massachusetts Municipal Association, a nonprofit lobbying group for cities and towns in the Commonwealth, has cited the costs associated with conducting hybrid meetings as a roadblock to making them permanent. And buying and installing the equipment necessary can indeed come at a steep cost for some jurisdictions — Franklin spent $20,000 to accommodate hybrid meetings; Newton spent $200,000 — but a state currently swimming in cash can and should provide the necessary one-time funds to towns that can’t afford to make the change.
At the end of the day, that would be an investment in democracy. Public meetings have never been entirely accessible to the public, and research has shown that the people who do come to meetings are more likely to be older, male, and homeowners than the general population. Hybrid meetings give governments a chance to change that. Being able to attend a public meeting online would give many people with disabilities, for example, greater access to the democratic process. The same goes for parents of young children, caretakers, people without cars or access to good transit, and many others, including people who work outside the 9-to-5 schedule — that is, disproportionately lower wage workers. Given that the technology exists to hold public meetings online, then there’s really no reason why Massachusetts should not transition to a permanent hybrid system.
For many cities and towns, particularly the smaller ones, making this change in how government work is done will require infrastructural improvements. But what better time could there be for that investment? If Massachusetts wants to govern more democratically — and transparently — in the 21st century, then it’s time to catch up to the Internet age. In 2022, that shouldn’t be that big of an ask.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.