From Zoom To Facebook, COVID-19 Is Changing How People Engage With Local Government The coronavirus pandemic has shut down the public meetings that are at the heart of all local democracy, but governments across the Washington region are adapting as best they can.
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NPR logo From Zoom To Facebook, COVID-19 Is Changing How People Engage With Local Government

From Zoom To Facebook, COVID-19 Is Changing How People Engage With Local Government

Like many other governments in the Washington region, the Montgomery County Council has been conducting public hearings — including on the budget — entirely online. Courtesy of/Montgomery County hide caption

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Courtesy of/Montgomery County

On Thursday evening, the Arlington County Board will meet to consider what are normally two critical issues: whether to raise taxes and how to spend any money they get from those taxes. It's one of local government's most basic functions, and one that happens with predictable regularity.

But much as the pandemic has upended normal life across the Washington region, so too has it tossed out the routines and rhythms of how local governments operate. Gone are in-person public hearings and press-the-flesh lobbying efforts. Instead, the business of government is now happening virtually. In Arlington, the planned hearings on Thursday will now take place fully online.

Much the same is currently happening in Montgomery County and will soon happen in D.C., all local jurisdictions where the pandemic has awkwardly fallen squarely in the middle of one of the most contentious moments of any year: budget-writing season.

Signs, T-Shirts And Lots Of Back-And-Forth

And that's left hyper-engaged residents, civic associations and advocacy groups scrambling to adapt, even more so as the economic shutdown has resulted in bleak financial forecasts and talk of significant budget cuts. "It certainly has changed some of the engagement process, because you won't have a physical hearing for you to attend," says Adam Pagnucco, a political analyst, writer and former staffer with the Montgomery County Council.

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Those public hearings often represent the most basic building block of representative democracy; average residents can come in and have their voices heard by the people making decisions on everything from legislation to spending public money.

"You'll see groups coming in with signs, with t-shirts. They'll pack the place. They'll applaud for the people that say things that they like. They'll boo the people that say things that they don't like. And there could be very much of a back and forth, including occasional questions from council members to those who testify. That is now gone," adds Pagnucco.

In D.C., talk of $600 million in immediate cuts to the current year's budget and even more in the budget to come is raising alarms with some progressive groups who worry that social services could be scaled back at a moment when many residents are hurting more than ever. But the traditional lobbying campaigns those groups would usually launch as shows-of-force are now impossible, and some advocates worry that important voices may be lost in the process.

"Because some of these ways we might have engaged where we could have let our voices be heard or brought public attention aren't happening, it's going to be really hard for us to be responsive and reactive," says Stephanie Sneed, executive director of the D.C. Fair Budget Coalition, which regularly organizes during the budget season to push for increased spending on housing and homeless services, health care, schools and the social safety net.

The loss of those important person-to-person meetings will be very real, agrees Pagnucco.

"When I was working at the Council during the budget times of mid-March through mid-May, I would often be in meetings five times a day or more with people who had budget concerns of one type or another. That can no longer be done either. So there will be opportunity to weigh in. But it won't be in the physical sense and that back and forth that we've been able to do in the past."

Local officials say they're doing the best they can to facilitate public engagement in new ways.

"I wouldn't say it's easy or simple, but I think we're trying to really hew to that spirit that people should be able to watch, comment on and know about all the work of government, and balancing that against the need to gather virtually," says Katie Cristol, a member of the Arlington County Board.

'A More Deliberative Process'

Beyond online hearings, Cristol says that means letting people submit testimony over email or the phone. The D.C. Council is looking to do much the same, and Chairman Phil Mendelson says the city's legislature is exploring letting people leave voicemail testimony that is then transcribed for lawmakers to read.

But Mendelson also says that pushing public hearings online — especially during budget deliberations — will take some adaptation, some of which may rein in the traditional day-long events where multiple people from the same organizations or coalitions would all speak. "We can make it work. I think the hearings will be tighter. But people will be able to testify. This will be a more deliberative process, rather, without all the drama," he says of how the budget will be hashed out.

Some Left Out, Others Newly Active

The transition to an all-virtual government will have benefits and drawbacks. Sneed worries about residents she works with that may not have easy access to internet, or may have less time available now because they're stuck at home with kids.

"Almost every industry right now is having to be creative and shift how we do things," she says. "I just think it's particularly difficult as we're facing this digital divide that is particularly impacting our constituents."

But others point out that traditional hearings were never totally democratic. The presumption was that someone would have the time, energy and resources to appear in person, and that often meant the same group of people usually did the lion's share of testifying.

Montgomery County Council member Gabe Albornoz (D-At Large) says the transition to online-only hearings seems to have expanded the universe of people who are engaging with their local government. He saw it during budget hearings the Council held last week.

"I did notice that there was a larger number of participants speaking in different languages, which I think is an indication that it's more accessible for people to be able to provide public testimony from their homes, not having to travel to Rockville and feel more comfortable in that space," he says. "So in that sense, it's been very helpful."

And for Mendelson, using Facebook for a recent townhall discussion increased engagement beyond what he would often see when he held the meetings in person.

"I would go out to a coffee shop on Saturday morning, and if I was lucky, 13 people would show up. I think I had 50 people on this call, maybe even 70. And that was really good. There was much more participation," he says.

Still, he says there are parts of the in-person practice of government that are tougher to replace. "There's no substitute for being able to get up and walk 10 feet and talk to somebody," he says of the usual give and take between lawmakers.

And as more of government has moved into virtual spaces, officials have had to confront the challenges with some of the new tools at their disposal. And those have become evident in recent weeks, as hackers have broken into virtual meetings in what's come to be known as "Zoombombing." Child pornography was broadcast during a recent meeting of the D.C. Public Charter School Board; the Hyattsville City Council suffered a similar intrusion during a meeting earlier this month.

Albornoz says the Montgomery County Council faced its own unexpected challenge during a recent hearing, albeit of a less serious kind.

"One of the Council staff members was eating Cheerios out of a box and was on TV," he says, noting that the staffer was unaware he was on video at the time. "A couple of my colleagues had to turn their cameras off because they were laughing so hard, you know, while this was going on. And so it was a lot of pent up, you know, anxiety playing itself out in a funny and silly way. But it just sort of spoke to the new normal."

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