There is no doubt that 2020 will be remembered for many things, but perhaps one of the most surprising and optimistic is the year of virtual engagement in the physical world. By necessity, we are all – teachers and CEOS, doctors and elementary school students, worker bees and department heads, therapists, and elected officials – becoming more and more acquainted with technology with each passing week. As your Supervisor, I am not afraid to admit that technology has never been a strength of mine, and yet I have managed, with a few bumps and reminders, to unmute along the way.
Certainly, there are difficulties. Our friends and neighbors who lack access to reliable internet struggle to participate or learn through Zoom, exacerbating our digital divide and inequality. Virtual public meetings give an opportunity for bad actors to expose participants to unsavory material if the meeting is not properly secured. Our children and university students are missing key elements of learning, group learning, and sharing, critical components of learning. And not all of our children learn effectively sitting in front of a screen for long periods of time. Zoom fatigue is definitely real – take it from me and my colleagues who have spent upwards of eight hours on one virtual meeting.
But there are some very real benefits to this new virtual world we find ourselves in, particularly for those public meetings that are the bread and butter of your local City Councils, Planning Commission, and Board of Supervisors. At the Board of Supervisors, we have seen an increase in the amount of engagement from the community at our meetings. No longer do folks have to drive to County Center and wait for an item to be heard – you can check in on the live stream, watch the item, and share your thoughts in real time from the comfort of your couch, while watching your children, or cooking dinner. Evening meetings like the Springs MAC have seen increased public participation as well, and some very important conversations about race and preparedness have taken place, with many more voices participating.
Instead of spending hours driving to meetings around the County or the Bay Area, I can zoom in and participate with my colleagues on decision making at the SC Transportation Authority, Bay Conservation and Development Commission, or SF Bay Restoration Authority. And I am trying to more effectively communicate with the community on virtual town halls, weekly meetings with the Sonoma County Mayors, and Thursday Morning Community Leaders zoom. (If you would like to be included on the Thursday morning zoom, just let me know, and we can send you a link.
I am far from alone in seeing the advantages of virtual public meetings. One major advantage is that continuing to hold public meetings virtually would reduce costs to local governments. Another is that folks with disabilities and language barriers may have an easier time with virtual meetings, where ASL and translation services can be embedded in the application. Sonoma County and other large employers are evaluating the effectiveness of some functions working remotely permanently. Employees report they are more productive and happier working remotely; we may see conversions of office space into housing opportunities in the near future. And before our recent fires, we observed bluer skies and less congested roads as more were participating in meetings virtually.
We certainly have more work to do to iron out the kinks and make sure that there is equitable access to the virtual platform. But I am hopeful that, even as the pandemic wanes, we will continue to provide an option for those who have come out of the woodwork to express their perspectives now that they are able to engage in a more flexible format.