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What’s Next: Virtual and Transparent Citizen Input

What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Right now Arlington has an opportunity to rethink and expand our public feedback process. Since the pandemic began, in-person meetings have been canceled and our county and school system’s public engagement processes have been required to adapt.

More than half of the school advisory committees were canceled for just a month and began meeting again in May via Microsoft Teams.

All county commission, committee, and advisory group meetings have been canceled for the past three months, and some have a tentative meeting date for July, as long as the agenda topics are related to items on this flow chart. A significant number of commission leaders signed a letter to the Board with concerns that commissions have been unable to meet about a host of important topics such as the Affordable Housing Master Plan, Capital Improvement Plan, Tenant-Landlord related issues, public space use for recreation during COVID-19, and more.

Some of these items are related to COVID-19, some are not, but most continue to be topics that are immediately important for public feedback.

It is understandable that overhauling the meeting structure of more than 60 citizen advisory groups takes a bit of time. Preparing the technology required to meet virtually and ensuring that all state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requirements are met is no small task, particularly as staff themselves continue to adapt to this new environment.

What this does provide is an opportunity for expanded engagement moving forward. Virtual meetings should not just be used during the pandemic, but for years to come. It is a forum that provides better transparency, equity, and community input. Parents with kids don’t have to miss dinner, people who hear of meetings last minute can jump on rather than make a plan to attend in person.

Virtual meetings put a dent in leveling the playing field for the diversity of opinion. Think of it this way: if there is a building being built next to you and you support it, it is highly unlikely that you will take time out of your day to wait in a room for hours to say that you want the project to happen, whereas if you oppose it, you might be more willing to make that sacrifice. If you are able to join by phone or computer, you might be more willing to quickly make a supporting comment.

County Board meetings also seem to be getting higher viewership with these expanded forms of communication. On Facebook Live, virtual town halls have received between 2,000 to 12,500 viewers, whereas in-person County Board meetings rarely break 300 viewers in person or on Arlington TV. Virtual options have also incorporated options to text in questions while discussion is happening rather than signing up in advance.

It is no secret that only a select few participate in the local policy-making process. Three years ago I wrote for ARLnow’s Progressive Voice: “Outside of voting, most Arlingtonians do not participate in local civic life. Even fewer study key planning documents such as the Arlington Community Energy Plan or the Rosslyn Sector Plan.”

Not much has changed, but with so much attention being drawn to local government on a variety of issues from pandemic response to policing, we have an opportunity to eliminate roadblocks for those wanting to be involved and make it easier for people to voice their opinions in their community.

Let’s also think outside the box. Are there ways similar to the texting feature or comments on Facebook Live for County Board town halls that could be implemented for commission meetings? Perhaps a comment section on the website or commenting capabilities during a live session? Can we broadcast major commission meetings, such as the Planning Commission, on Facebook Live? Is there a reason that Facebook videos are more viewed than Arlington TV? (Videos of cement spheres in Dark Star Park creating a shadow are getting more views on Facebook than County Board meetings do on Arlington TV.)

In short, let’s figure out the roadblocks to making public meetings virtual and overcome them. Let’s make as many board, commission, advisory, and working groups as virtually interactive as possible and increase civic participation. Not just now as a short term fix, but long into the future.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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