We have entered into the age of Zoomification, book-ended by the Boomers and the Zoomers. We, the public, have now been consigned to being pixels on a screen with electronic reproductions of our voices. Over two years ago, I wrote an article here entitled “Citizen/City Dialogue - A Myth” in which I gave a three dimensional description of City Council and planning commission modus operandi.
“I am troubled by a lack of true dialogue between the city and its citizens. This deficiency consistently manifests itself and permeates issues before the Bellingham Planning and Development Commission and the City Council where a true exchange of ideas or information does not take place. In both groups, their authority is symbolized by the chambers where they are enthroned, including the dais itself, a relic from the past when higher meant more important, e. g. the monarch speaking ex cathedra. So, we physically elevate the council and commission members while all others who engage take the seats below. Notably, those in the audience who may find themselves physically elevated from the council, cannot speak: no clapping, no booing, no hissing is allowed unless the council president agrees with the crowd, then these minor peccadilloes are overlooked.”
Now, meetings have become two-dimensional in a flattened council chamber. That does eliminate the enthronement and its elevation, but also now relegates the staff and the public to observers in an electronic camera obscura where council members, commission members, and staff flit into and out of existence like so many sub-atomic particles. We never see the council as a whole but for a fleeting quark here, a Higgs boson there. While one council member or commissioner is speaking, the others, for all we know, are involved in activities other than that of the meeting. For the sake of decorum, I will make no suggestions but will leave it to the reader to imagine what such activities might be.
We get no visual feedback from their faces because, unless speaking, they have become faceless. We speak to the void. When commenters speak at a hearing or during the public comment period, we are left with various versions of the Black Screen of Doom and Anonymity (see above) wherein you may see a name printed in white, or some initials, or some cutesy avatar, but never the commenter. And the councilors or committee members on their virtual dais miss the necessary reading of the faces of those who come before them with citizen issues.
This from a citizen who has been active for decades in neighborhood and citywide issues:
“Expecting a true public dialogue on critically important issues is a fantasy in this pandemic. In most meetings I have participated in, it’s like talking to a blank wall. And, the wall doesn’t respond. Unless you have someone in the other room watching the broadcast, you have no idea what…is going on. Many times when I’ve logged in it is difficult to know (a) am I there, (b) can they “see” me or just see my name on a list. They no longer use the video for any public participants and that’s because it helps add to the feeling of disregard. Just a name on a black screen.”
And because you see no faces except for those of staff and council/planning commission members who appear serially, it is often difficult to hear the speaker. Poor quality microphones, cameras with the ensuing poor image quality and lack of visages puts the observer at a distinct disadvantage, especially if we consider the poor, with slow connections; the elderly, with impaired eyesight and hearing; and others who are visually or hearing impaired. Not a sign language interpreter in sight, and the Zoom direct-transcription option, which provides an immediate printing of the speakers voice in a side-bar, is apparently not used.
Another citizen comment:
“The whole thing about public process is we see who is present and who they are. We do [our] government in public. The Zoom managers can easily fix this - making it mandatory to show who you are and ask for full identity before being allowed to speak.”
Other problems abound: There is no longer access to an overhead projector, so a public commenter is left without the option to use an image to accompany a comment. Additionally, how does one signal a point of order? Are there conversations taking place on the Chat that are not recorded or are not made available as part of the record? I have also heard complaints of raised hands being ignored, or the inability to access a meeting because the Zoom manager does not pay attention. (This is more of a problem in pre-application type meetings required of a developer.)
As a resident wrote to me about arriving late at one of these developer meetings:
“... as I did not ever get into the meeting, I asked to view the record of the meeting. He [developer] made it difficult for me, but I saw it - and had to suggest that maybe I write the city saying I was pounding on the meeting room door but they would not let me in. He said it was a private recording and he did not have to show it to people. So - all meetings should be recorded and filed for public access online.”
And yet another resident writes:
“I have attended a community meeting run by a developer where city planners are in the room but the meeting chair does not announce who is in attendance. Basic courtesy rules are thrown out the window. It’s Covid, so who the f… cares? It could be 4 people, maybe 12, maybe 112. Who knows.”
This is from a citizen who is active in city issues who was trying to get recognized at a meeting, but was ignored.
“...there was a city meeting to determine locations for covid testing and a reorganization of counsel. I had been hounding several members of council for an emergency session but this one snuck up on me and I had been asking for an emergency agenda item in any meeting I could get, so while viewing the meeting, and talking about all these great locations for covid testing the question went out does anybody have any more questions and I saw the option to raise my hand so I raised it. I saw the eyes of several members of the Council go to where the hand raised would be shown on their screen. Of course they ignored it. They moved on to other business and I took my hand down when they were ready to move on. I tried to raise my hand again but saw that it had been muted…. So I went to see what other functions were available and found the chat window was open so I, naturally, since I had access, commented that I felt we needed to identify emergency winter shelters immediately before someone died. These comments were left up for a number of minutes and then suddenly they disappeared from the public record. I suppose this is some sort of violation of state law. [An] aggravation because of the content of my plea more than an offense to me as rules of holding meetings. It’s probably fair to say they never meant to leave those options open, but once on the record, it is also fair to say they should remain there for public record.”
And this from another citizen pretty well wraps it up:
“Pretending that “business as usual” can be conducted on issues that REQUIRE public participation—such as planning issues that impact neighborhoods, the Comp Plan, and land use—is impossible. There is no reason that large projects that have tremendous impact need to be moved forward at this time. If it’s got anything to do with public safety, health, and economic stability okay but everything else needs to take a back seat.”
The City Council did, to their credit, discuss some of the issues presented above during the 8 February meeting, however, much more dialogue is necessary if these Zoom meetings are to continue. And they will continue into the foreseeable future. Let’s not kid ourselves.