Foss: Time for in-person council meetings to resume

Schenectady City Hall

Schenectady City Hall

A poor excuse for a public meeting.

That’s what I jotted in my notebook while watching Monday night’s Schenectady City Council meeting.

I don’t ordinarily tune into these events, but complaints from city residents about the online format and its restrictions on public participation piqued my curiosity.

One letter, submitted to the council earlier this month by Schenectady United Neighborhoods, a coalition of neighborhood associations, expressed concern that “the Council is conducting public hearings without any meaningful public input.”

That’s putting it mildly.

The exclusion of public voices from public meetings ought to be a major concern for anyone who cares about open government and democratic norms.

Some communities have started holding in-person, public meetings again, and it’s time for Schenectady to do the same.

That’s the only way to fix what’s become a genuine civic embarrassment.

Indeed, it’s hard not to watch these meetings and come to the conclusion that the council is using the pandemic as an excuse to avoid engaging with the public.

Here’s why:

Up until July 13

, when Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted the council’s regular meeting, members of the public were allowed to participate in meetings via a software called Webex. That option was eliminated after the digital disruption. Meetings are now streamed on YouTube, which doesn’t allow for public participation.

I watched the July 13 meeting, and I won’t deny that the activists were disruptive.

But so what?

Does that really justify nixing public participation indefinitely?

Right now, members of the public can email comments to the city clerk and have them acknowledged during the meeting. That’s not sufficient. Indeed, it suggests that the council just can’t be bothered to figure out a more inclusive, better-moderated system for conducting its meetings.

As the letter from SUN observes, “Governments and businesses around the world have figured out how to hold on-line meetings. Anyone running a Webex meeting has the ability to control who speaks and who doesn’t. You can allow members of the public to speak during a meeting, just as you would during the ‘privilege of the floor’ portion of in-person Council meetings, and mute them when they aren’t speaking.”

The letter also requests that council members should be required to participate in meetings with their video on, not just by phone or with the video selected.

“To do less sends a message to the public that the council member is disengaged,” the letter states. “We want to see our elected representatives in action, and we want to be able to tell them what we think about issues of concern to City Government.”

That this even needs to be said is astonishing.

But the sad fact is that it does need to be said, because too many council members are opting to remain invisible to their constituents, appearing in these meetings as disembodied voices. That’s bad etiquette, and also a tremendous service to the public.

Some have suggested ways to make the City Council meetings more inclusive, and they’re good suggestions. But they all take it as a given that council meetings will be conducted digitally, and it’s time we discard that notion.

Look around.

Colleges are reopening. People are going to work. Schools are supposed to reopen next month, although that is subject to change. All kinds of things are happening. Are we really supposed to believe the Schenectady City Council can’t have in-person meetings?

Maybe, but that’s nonsense.

Other communities have started holding in-person government meetings under sensible guidelines that could be implemented in the Electric City — or any other municipality that has yet to resume in-person meetings.

Glenville, which began holding in-person public meetings on Aug. 19, limits capacity to 30 residents and requires attendees to wear masks. Holding meetings outside is another option. Schenectady’s community meetings on policing have been held outside. Concerned it might rain? Find a pavilion. Get a tent.

I’ll admit that my expectations for Monday’s City Council meeting were pretty low.

But I was still unprepared for just how stultifying public meetings are when stripped of meaningful input from the public.

You’d never know, from watching these meetings, that this is a time of unrest and activism in the city.

“You’d think there were no problems in the city,” one community leader told me, noting that a City Council meeting earlier this month lasted all of 25 minutes. “If people are protesting in the streets, it might be because they’re not being heard.”

Right now, almost nobody is being heard.

At least, not by the Schenectady City Council.

And it’s time for that to change.

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

Categories: News, Opinion, Sara Foss, Schenectady County, The Daily Gazette

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