Town should put meetings online

Published 5:10 pm Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Perhaps a silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic will be modernizing the way public bodies conduct their business and allowing fuller citizen participation in local government.

Smithfield Town Councilwoman Valerie Butler is spot-on with her calls for the city’s governing board to consider livestreaming its meetings on the town’s website and via social media.

“It definitely would keep the citizens engaged,” Butler told Times reporter Nate Delesline about establishing a meeting livestream. “I think going forward, we’ll have some discussion centered around that, to see if other council members have had any conversations, but I think in this day and time with technology, I think it’s a viable option to be able to offer those that want to view it from the confines of their home.”

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Butler correctly observed that adding a livestream of the meeting would help citizens — especially young people — better engage with town’s elected officials, as many people conduct quite a bit of their daily activities through smartphones, apps and social media. “We want (town government) to be inclusive for all the citizens and make it as convenient for them as possible,” she said.

Such a move, while a decade or so late, would bring Smithfield in line with what government transparency advocates have been recommending for many years.

“Generally speaking, we have not changed our position for the past 15 or so years, which is that government should always be encouraged to use technology to increase public visibility, participation and observation,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit alliance that promotes expanded access to local and state government records and meetings.

Although what the town is doing is perfectly OK, Rhyne elaborated, the absence of a public meeting live stream is a missed opportunity. “There is nothing in state law that would prohibit doing that and so it’s just something we’ve thought was a good idea for government bodies to be doing all along.”

Mayor Carter Williams defended the town’s current practice of “socially distanced” in-person meetings as sufficient, but why not offer citizens the best of both worlds? For those who want to go to the meeting and look their elected officials in the eye, have at it. But if you’d prefer to observe your public servants online, that option should be available.

Given how cheap video streaming technology has become and the fact that bodies like the Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors use it routinely, we’re surprised that this would even be a topic of debate for town officials.

The time is now to make town government deliberations accessible to all citizens.