Opinion: Let’s keep the Zoom era going for public meetings

Since 2004, an average of more than 100 local newspapers have shuttered in the US per year. This has left thousands of communities without any news organization to monitor the actions of local and state government.

In the Greater Boston area, many cities and towns have lost local newspapers, and recently, Gannett, which owns the largest number of local papers, announced that it is closing 19 weekly newspapers in eastern Massachusetts that serve 26 local communities, and merging 9 weeklies into 4 publications. The surviving newspapers are being reoriented to “regional beats,” which will curtail or eliminate coverage of local government.

Thankfully, Dorchester residents have the Dorchester Reporter. But the continuing loss of local news organizations across the state that monitor government just continues the retreat of civil society and community residents’ ability to know what the agencies and organizations that affect their lives are doing.

The pandemic, for all its serious downsides, has shown us a way for communities to do that monitoring.

On March 12, 2020, as the coronavirus drove us into lockdown, Gov. Baker issued an executive order that temporarily changed the Open Meeting Law, which requires that meetings of public bodies be open to the public, to allow for these meetings to be held virtually instead of being held, as the law stipulates, in “a public place that is open and physically accessible to the public.”

In the past, if you wanted to monitor public agencies, you would have to go to the locations of their meetings or hope that a local newspaper would cover them. Suddenly, on March 12, 2020, citizens had access to sessions through a computer or a phone. Thanks to the development of Zoom and similar programs that allow for many people to see and hear others in real time, virtual meetings became ubiquitous.

Although complaints are heard about how much of our discourse is now virtual, you don’t hear people saying how much they miss driving to get to public meetings. The result has been much better access by the public, more agencies able to have quorums to do business, and far less gas being used by people driving to these meetings.

But the executive order, which had been extended by legislation, is slated to expire this coming July 15. Instead of that, it should be made permanent.

Democracy and governmental transparency have certainly benefitted from this pandemic-driven innovation, and residents now have much more agency in monitoring and participating in the actions of government. At the very local level, civic association volunteers are easily able to weigh in on development projects, and reporters can extend themselves to cover more things.

It’s time for the Legislature to make this change to the Open Meeting Law permanent. Beyond that, philanthropies should be supporting the ability of communities to monitor government by funding local newspapers and other entities to do the monitoring or to develop this capacity for themselves.

The model for this is the Shah Family Foundation, which produces a regular podcast monitoring the Boston Public Schools labeled, “Last Night @ School Committee.” In this podcast, Ross Wilson and Jill Shah provide information on discussions and votes at meetings, and, more important, the meaning of these discussions and votes. They have recently added a special series on the search for Boston’s next school superintendent, providing a valuable service at no cost to listeners.

Enhancing civil society and keeping us apprised of the actions of the agencies and organizations that affect our well-being is surely something that philanthropies should embrace. Funding could be made available to the remaining local newspapers and/or suitable nonprofit organizations that focus on public policy. But all of that should start with ensuring that virtual meetings continue.

If you support making Zoom-liked access permanent as part of the Open Meeting Law, call the Governor’s office at 617-725-4005 as well as your state senator and state representatives, who can be reached at 617-722-2000 or via malegislature.gov.

Let’s keep open meetings open to all.

Bill Walczak lives in Dorchester. His column appears regularly in the Reporter.

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