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Don’t shut the public out

Local governments have a lot to deal with these days. When they ran for office, no candidate thought they would be dealing with the twin issues of a worldwide pandemic and a crashing local economy. It’s a daunting doubleheader of dilemmas guaranteed to define the local area this decade.

But in this new mode of emergency operation, our leaders should not shut out the public.

We have quickly seen many board of supervisors and town councils enact emergency declarations and suspend public comments. Buckingham, Cumberland, Charlotte and Prince Edward county supervisors have offered opportunities for the public to call in and submit comments by email or voicemail. The Farmville Town Council has as well.

Other public bodies such as Victoria’s Town Council and Lunenburg County’s Board of Supervisors do not have any online options for residents stuck at home to keep abreast of what is happening in their town or county.

While local governments should be congratulated for quickly adjusting to this new normal and providing online or conference call methods for the public to attend board meetings, it isn’t enough to let the public hear what is happening. Boards need to work to provide methods to let residents speak to their elected officials as a board, in real time.

Buckingham and Cumberland counties are deciding on potential tax increases in the coming week. The Buckingham County supervisors only had one written public comment on a tax increase that could be as much as 10% more in the coming year. If it had been a typical board meeting, there would have likely been many more citizens there to ask questions and present their opinions.

It is a difficult time and challenges are many but, now more than ever, local governments need to work to explain their positions and give residents every opportunity to participate in the process.

Boards should utilize technology to take public comments as part of the meeting from citizens who have something to say. Having to interact and respond to questions and comments from citizens during a meeting is a very different dynamic than a citizen writing an email or leaving a voicemail.

Hopefully, municipalities will return to meeting in person and taking live public comments in the next three months or so but until then, each board should work to find ways to include public comments in the process.

This is not a time to shut the doors on the citizens who need our government leaders to be responsive and effective during this time of uncertainty and crisis.