Virtual City Forums Address Accessibility Issues for Local Government Participation

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In 2019, Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick, “concerned that so few parents of preschool and school-aged children are involved in city government,” instituted a policy that led to childcare offerings at all city council and commission meetings. Earlier that year, Pittsburgh City Councilmember Dan Gilman helped launch a pilot program for childcare services during city forums and budget hearings. Thankfully, other cities across the United States are also starting to make local government meetings more accessible to parents of young children but countless issues related to accessibility remain that can be resolved with technology. Since the spread of COVID-19, a new model for accessibility has been introduced that could lead to increased participation in local government if continued once the threat of the virus is gone: virtual town halls and community meetings.

As reported by Brooklyn Paper, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer “bought subscriptions on the videoconferencing platform Zoom to allow the borough’s 12 community boards to host meetings online.” Now, politicians from other boroughs, and other states, are considering making the switch to virtual meetings as a response to government “social distancing” orders.

State Scoop reported that “governments in cities including Arlington, Texas; Aurora, Illinois; and Philadelphia have agreed to meet virtually over the last week as a precaution to avoid spreading the virus.” Further, reporter for State Scoop Ryan Johnston explained that these “digital transitions” haven’t exactly been smooth sailing. The same goes for meetings across the country. Not only are some meetings hacked by anti-Semitic, racist “zoombombers,” but issues related to technological literacy and technical difficulties have led some to question whether the switch to online meetings is a good idea.

In Laguna Beach, California, a city council meeting was hacked by a “ live pornographic display” as reported by Patch. According to the report, “Laguna Beach’s technical support was unable to either mute or turn off the camera of people who were putting on a live pornographic display.” In Michigan, during Kalamazoo City Commission’s first virtual meeting, hackers disrupted the online event by yelling profanities and inappropriate comments.

Despite these preventable yet disturbing incidents, the benefits of moving meetings intended to increased democratic participation online outweigh the cons; as long as proper precautions are taken and people are given as much information as possible to efficiently and effectively use the software and technology.

Kayla Woods, executive communications specialist with the League of California Cities, told the East Bay Times that “city councils throughout the state are doing everything they can to prioritize the health and safety of their residents during this global pandemic, and to also ensure government transparency, access, and public participation.” Further, Peter Brunette, Chair of the Planning Board in Laconia, New Hampshire’s local governing body, echoed those sentiments when he told Laconia Daily Sun that virtual meetings “could increase the public participating in the business of government.”

Participating in local government can be difficult for countless people due to issues related to access — be it transportation concerns, ADA non-compliance in the buildings where meetings are held, lack of childcare, social anxiety, or otherwise — and offering an option that allows people to listen in and/or share their voice without having to leave their home bridges political gaps. Cities should prioritize accessibility when planning how meetings will operate now and after the threat of COVID-19 is gone.

Civic engagement is about more than who has a seat at the table. It’s also about who has access to the room in which the table sits and whether or not the building is ADA compliant and offers childcare. Building and improving communities starts with making sure that all members of the community can participate in conversations about the community and be a part of decision-making processes. Moving forward, virtual access to local government meetings should be an option in all cities and local leaders should advocate for the necessary funding to make sure the digital spaces are safe from zoombombing incidents, committed to respectful dialogue, and allow all people to participate in democracy.

NYC-based philosophy graduate student whose work covers Genocide Studies, Repro + Enviro Justice, and Critical Race Theory. @moontwerk

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