Call it my Zoom epiphany. Last month, as I sat with my laptop watching a virtual county government meeting on mask wearing, I scrolled through screen after screen of attendees to gauge how many others had logged in.

I lost count somewhere around 100.

People in their kitchens. People in their living rooms. People in what looked like their pajamas. People there one minute, gone the next to let the barking dog out to poop, and then back again until the next interruption.

I even saw one guy, shortly before he spoke, take a long slug from a bottle of … something or other.

That’s when it hit me. As we mark the anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is what democracy looks like.

“More engagement from the public is always a good thing,” Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, said in an interview. “Whether you’re talking about legislation or municipal ordinances or school board policies, the more input you can get from the public, the better off you’re going to be.”

Stewart is the sponsor of “An Act Regarding Remote Participation in Public Proceedings,” now awaiting a hearing before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

The bill would allow county, municipal and school boards, as well as the University of Maine System and other state and regional bodies, to adopt policies for conducting meetings remotely – pandemic or no pandemic.

(Legislative hearings, also now on Zoom, are subject to rules adopted by lawmakers at the start of each session.)

Stewart’s bill would apply not only to members of the public who can’t attend a meeting in person but also those who sit on the government body itself and might otherwise be absent.

Of course, like so many things these days, the idea of government-by-Zoom is a tradeoff.

For starters, the all-remote gathering cannot fully replicate the packed meeting room. In person, it’s not just what someone at the podium says that has an impact, but also all the ambient grunting and groaning that tells the powers that be exactly what’s going on in the court of public opinion.

What’s more, the in-person meeting often brings together people with opposing views. I call it the power of the “excuse me” – say it nicely as you squeeze past your polar-opposite neighbor in the third row and, if only for a fleeting moment, you actually might smile at each other.

But in reality, the vast majority of local government meetings aren’t all that crowded.

You’ve got your one or two regulars who show up because they love to complain and (ironically) think government is nothing but a colossal waste of time. You’ve got the single-issue folks who show up, speak their piece and skedaddle. And if you’re lucky, you might have the young news reporter who keeps an anxious eye on the clock as it ticks inexorably toward deadline.

All told, that’s usually fewer than 10 people.

Fire up the Zoom, on the other hand, and you’re more likely to draw a crowd.

Maggie Fleming serves as the town of Falmouth’s administration analyst, a job that over the past year has included putting all municipal meetings online. It didn’t start off well – last March a town council meeting got “bombed” by an intruder who engaged in what officials called “lewd behavior” for all to see before the meeting was summarily shut down.

Such glitches have long since been resolved, Fleming said, and Falmouth’s reliance on Zoom has produced a noteworthy uptick in civic engagement.

“We did not track attendance at our pre-pandemic in-person meetings at Town Hall, but I would estimate that we averaged 6-10 attendees per meeting,” Fleming said. “Since we began holding council meetings over Zoom in March 2020, we have had an average of 19 attendees per meeting.”

Falmouth is far from alone. Eric Conrad, director of communications and educational services for the Maine Municipal Association, said his organization tried without success before the pandemic to get legislative approval for adding an online element to local meetings.

Then Gov. Janet Mills issued an executive order last spring allowing the virtual meetings while Maine remained in a state of pandemic emergency. Suddenly what previously seemed impossible, impractical and imprudent became nothing short of brilliant.

“I think that the pandemic is opening a lot of people’s eyes in terms of what’s possible,” Conrad said. “Our members are telling us that participation is up. Their citizens know – the ones with internet access, at least – how easy participation is now.”

Maybe too easy. During that marathon session I witnessed last month, more than one speaker was backdropped by one or more other people holding up signs rendered unreadable by the poor lighting and distance from the computer camera.

The meeting also featured a steady chat stream that, unlike the grunting and groaning at in-person meetings, frequently wandered off into places unknown to all but the person doing the typing.

And people, if you raise your virtual hand to indicate you have something to say, don’t be on a bathroom break or some other personal mission when your turn finally arrives. It’s like signing up to speak at an in-person meeting and then going out to wait in your car.

But these things are all surmountable.

In Falmouth, for example, the chat room is disabled for all meetings. That sidesteps any concerns about whether that chat thread, technically being part of the meeting, would thus legally become part of the public record.

At the same time, Fleming noted, Falmouth uses such techniques as typewritten Q&A’s and instant polling to engage online viewers who might otherwise be there just to watch and listen.

So, will Zoomfests forever replace in-person meetings?

Not a chance.

But can incorporating a Zoom component into a regular meeting make local government infinitely more accessible to the parent with young kids who need to be put to bed early or the older Mainer who can’t drive after dark?

Without a doubt.

Just ask that guy with the bottle.


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