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Column – Pandemic has improved access to public meetings

It’s hard to believe anything positive can come out of a pandemic that has left more than 500,000 dead and disrupted the lives of everyone for more than a year. But access and availability of public meetings and the way we interact with our local elected officials has certainly been greatly improved in many cases.

A year ago, near the beginning of the pandemic, open meetings and public access to the inner workings of local government suddenly became a big concern. Almost every governing body in Virginia passed emergency declarations effectively locking the doors of council chambers to the public and reporters. The people’s business was conducted over hastily set up conference calls leaving those on the line questioning who was speaking and how they could get an opportunity to continue participating in this important process.

I still remember trying to listen to the Town of Farmville’s annual retreat last year through the worst conference call setup ever. Everyone sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher.

A year later, the Town of Farmville has one of the best video systems for broadcasting meetings in the area. The town began broadcasting on Facebook shortly after the pandemic began, but capabilities were limited. This new system purchased with CARES Act money for $66,513 has multiple cameras with the ability to zoom in on councilmembers as they speak and also show those seated in the gallery.

The same is true for the Prince Edward County Supervisors who have progressed from conference calls with poor quality at times to YouTube broadcasts where supervisors can be easily seen and heard.

The Buckingham County Supervisors and school board are also streaming meetings live as they happen as is the Prince Edward County School Board. Some of these are better than others, but all are a great improvement over the past when the public had to be in the meeting place at the appointed time to see what was happening.

Now, if I want to see what the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors said about an agenda item in November, I can go to YouTube and check it out. Where before, the only option available from many governing bodies was written minutes produced weeks after a meeting, we now have permanent video records that can be accessed by anyone at any time.

While all this video may become great fodder for local political campaigns at some point during election season, it is exactly what the public needs at this moment and should continue long after the pandemic is in our rear view mirror.

ROGER WATSON is editor for The Farmville Herald and Farmville Newsmedia LLC. His email address is Roger.Watson@FarmvilleHerald.com.