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Put the ‘public’ back in ‘public meetings’

The Patrick administration is holding a series of community forums across the state this month, part of a campaign that is aimed — ostensibly— at educating the public about the tough budget choices facing the Commonwealth. It’s a worthwhile exercise, especially if the administration is sincere in its desire to get feedback from actual constituents.

The process, at least here in Boston, has been undermined by a fundamental flaw: Many residents were left out because the Patrick administration failed to properly notify them about the opportunity to participate. It’s a needless fall-down that needs to be corrected in the future.

Dr. JudyAnn Bigby hosted one of two scheduled Boston meetings on Tuesday evening at Mattapan’s Foley Senior Residences. The Reporter — in hopes of informing our readers about the event— repeatedly asked for advance notice on where and when the administration’s budget forums would take place. We finally got it on Monday afternoon — just a little more than 24 hours before the actual event took place, and a full seven days after we could have delivered the news to our thousands of print readers. (The Reporter did post an announcement at DotNews.com.)

The governor’s administration can and should do better than this. They have expressed a commitment to engaging the citizens of the Commonwealth and even have hired staff focused only on that job. And yet, the message that seemed to come from his staff this week was that they were overwhelmed with the amount of meetings they had to coordinate and the public would have to seek out this information on their own by tapping into the state’s website — even though in the case of the Mattapan forum, the website gave little more than a day’s notice. What is the point of holding these forums if no one knows about them?

A similar explanation was handed out by another state agency this week after residents stumbled upon news about a Mass Highway hearing here in Dorchester, also held on Tuesday night. The subject — the reconstruction of key intersections along Dorchester Avenue— has been well-reviewed under the auspices of the city of Boston, which took great pains to engage the public and invite them to participate in the Dot Ave Project. But the state agency’s Tuesday meeting — required by law — remained a mystery until just hours before it was held. That’s just unacceptable.

Technology is a wonderful thing and the web should be used to its full potential as a tool to notify and engage the public. But it shouldn’t become the exclusive means of doing so. There are many families and seniors without access to online services. The administration should be cognizant of this going forward and make a better attempt to reach out to all of the public as it seeks input on these important matters.

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