As you sit for hours in Northern Virginia gridlock, it’s probably very easy for you to wish that you could do whatever it is you need to do by phone, email, teleconference or some other sit-at-home-and-push-a-button process.
It would certainly be easier and probably more efficient. Efficiency is a popular word bandied about in the General Assembly. Everyone wants to make government efficient.
Here’s the thing: businesses can be efficient, cars are efficient, so should HVAC systems. But democracy? Not so much.
It would be much more efficient to be able to hold meetings any time, anywhere, with or without the public, with or without notice, minutes, cameras or recordings.
But is that a system that anyone wants?
Two bills have been introduced in the General Assembly this year that would alter the rules governing when state or local governments can meet by electronic means. One would change the rules related to where a quorum of the public body’s members must be, another would allow local and regional governments to take advantage of the rules currently reserved for use by state agencies.
VCOG is opposed to both measures.
The bills’ proponents are interested in efficiency, but that’s not all. They want to be able to use new and future technologies to reach more citizens and to make it easier for members of a public body to attend and participate in a meeting.
Of course, we are in complete agreement about reaching more citizens. If meetings were webcast, if the public could dial into a teleconference, if there were certain locations where citizens could get together to watch a live television feed of a meeting far away, that would be fantastic. And I don’t know that we’d need new electronic meeting rules to do that so long as the public body’s quorum was all in one place.
And that’s why we want to be careful in expanding the use of electronic meetings to make things easier for members of the public body.
I don’t have it in for elected or appointed officials. Really, I don’t. I don’t want to make their job harder than it already is. But before we ease their burden on meeting in person, it’s important to remind ourselves of why we want the meetings to be held in public in the first place.
As interested citizens, we not only want to hear what our representatives are discussing, but we also want to see them. We want to see them interact with one another. We want to see their body language -- the eye roll, the almost-falling-asleep, the head shake or nod. We want to see whether they are paying attention, or whether they’re even there (when calling into a teleconference, there’s no guarantee the person on the other end of the phone is even in the room!).We want to see that lightbulb go off when they hear a comment that causes them to “get it.”
Just as important as all of the above, though, is the community the meeting creates. Citizens go to see others who are interested in the same topic. They identify stakeholders they were unaware of. They spot potential allies and potential adversaries.
The current rules for electronic meetings came after multi-year studies by the FOIA Council by stakeholders, allies and adversaries. I suspect there will be further studies, as meeting technology is ever ever-evolving. But please, let’s not go down this road on a legislative whim without taking into consideration the public’s right to observe a meeting.