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COLUMN — Public meetings should actually include the public

It is time to put the public back into public meetings.

The experiment of using conference calls, Facebook Live and whatever other concocted means local governments have cobbled together to narrowly satisfy the open meeting requirements during the pandemic has been a failure.

I spent four hours listening to last week’s Farmville Town Council retreat. It was like listening to a cacophony of Charlie Brown’s teacher. It was impossible to tell who was speaking and more difficult to understand what they were saying. It is obvious the council just plopped down a phone in the middle of the table and expected that to be enough to satisfy those attempting to hear the meeting. It was actually easier to hear discussions during the breaks than during the meeting.

Meetings with the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors have not been any better. People announcing their names as they enter the meeting in the middle of conversations combined with others not muting their phones, and providing some interesting running commentary on the proceedings, have been a problem. The last monthly meeting was interrupted by a screeching sound that lasted more than five minutes.

This is no way for local governments to interact with the public.

We are in this age when we have the technology to do this much better. Lots of municipalities have been broadcasting their meetings on local cable channels for years. Dozens of churches in the area made quick transition to having very nice services over Facebook Live. Local governments can start by doing simple things like identifying themselves when they are speaking and making sure the people sitting far away from the phone can be heard clearly.

Prince Edward County will have a critical discussion on the STEPS recycling program Tuesday night and hold eight public hearings. Many of the public hearings are for rezoning and special use permits. These are decisions that affect neighbors and neighborhoods. During the previous month’s meeting the county came within a couple votes of permitting an asphalt plant in an area where citizens were speaking out against it. These are decisions that should not be discussed over terrible conference call connections. Citizens deserve the opportunity to look their supervisors in the eye and speak their piece.

This can be accomplished while maintaining social distancing and COVID-19 safety requirements. Everyone coming to a public meeting should wear a mask. They should be allowed into the meeting for the public hearing they are interested in, make their comments and then leave.

Lunenburg County never closed their public meetings. They have required everyone to be six feet apart, wear masks and encouraged citizens to send in comments before the meeting but have not closed the doors to the public. I thought that was a little crazy back in April. Now, I think this is exactly the way to make this work.

With the pandemic stretching on into the fall and potentially into 2021, some new ideas on putting the public back into public meetings are needed.

Public officials need to figure out how to allow face-to-face public participation again before we all suddenly wake up one day to find an asphalt plant in our neighborhood and wonder how it happened.

ROGER WATSON is editor of The Farmville Herald. His email address is Roger.Watson@FarmvilleHerald.com.