When should neighborhood councils resume in-person meetings?
This is a difficult question to answer, which involves issues of public health but also issues of governmental access. And that’s just one of many debates taking place: When should appointed councils and commissions return to meet in person? And when should lawmakers allow the public to visit the Capitol in person?
Two years of the pandemic have disrupted in-person gatherings, and governments are still struggling to adapt to digital meetings. For example, government board meetings are still canceled due to lack of working Zoom links and incomplete agendas.
But the pandemic has offered us a chance to rethink government meetings entirely, to think deliberately about where and when they take place, to reconsider their format.
Meetings of boards and commissions, city councils, and the state legislature are essential to the functioning of government. It is essential that we make the most of it.
“Gathering — the conscious bringing together of people for a reason — shapes how we think, feel, and make sense of the world,” says Priya Parker, author of “The Art of Gathering.”
An effective rally has a clear purpose, Parker says. This objective governs the choice of the place, the hour of the meeting and the composition of the guest list. If you want a quiet discussion, you won’t host it at a rock concert. Similarly, to get a team excited about a new project, you might consider meeting in a drab conference room.
Often neighborhood council meetings are held at any available venue, but it is worth considering where and when they should meet as communities emerge from the pandemic. To choose the right moment and the right place, we must first answer another question: what is the purpose of the neighborhood council?
The City and County of Honolulu defines a ward council meeting as “an open monthly forum between government officials, elected officials, and community members.”
If you attend or watch a tape of a ward council meeting, you’ll see a one to three hour procession of presentations and discussions.
Meetings begin with brief reports from the Honolulu Fire Department, Honolulu Police Department, and Water Supply Board. The remaining time is divided between reports from elected officials (or their proxies), presentations from community members, and discussions of community concerns.
The chairs of the boards of directors have almost total control over the agenda. Some presidents allow elected officials to present themselves before the work of the council. Others require officials to wait until the community has discussed its concerns. In a two-hour meeting, this is not a trivial decision.
Apparently, the purpose of the neighborhood council is to create an open flow of information between government and citizens. Representatives of government agencies and elected officials bring community concerns together and give them a voice in the halls of government. In return, they answer questions and provide vital information to community members.
But this underestimates the civic potential of a neighborhood council. A council can be a place for problem solving, identifying problems and mobilizing community resources to solve them.
Some neighborhood councils have taken on this additional responsibility by forming standing committees to address common community issues. Other councils are more reactive and their meetings tend towards kvetching.
Location, location, location
Zoom and Webex meetings do more than remove nonverbal communication and physical presence. They also exclude certain segments of the population, in particular those who do not have access to digital technology.
Of course, neighborhood council meetings have always excluded segments of the population, simply by being scheduled at fixed times. If a board meeting starts at 6 p.m., it may not allow attendance for those who finish their work at that time and have to go home. If a board meeting starts later, it may exclude seniors who have poor night vision and are not comfortable walking or driving home when meetings end around 9 or 10 p.m. h.
There is not always room for compromise, although we should be honest about the trade-offs involved in scheduling meetings, aware of how the fundamental choice of time and place affects the functioning of our institutions. democratic.
For all government agencies, we should ask ourselves: what is the purpose of this meeting? Who should it serve? And, with the answers to these two questions in mind: Where and when should it meet?
I raise these questions not to answer them, but to contribute to a larger discussion. The best place to discuss this might be at a neighborhood council meeting near you.