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Josh Bergeron: Don’t let digital divide detract from participation in meetings

People hoping to participate in local government lately have faced a steeper climb to making their voice heard.

During the COVID-19 outbreak, a wide array of local governments have moved online for deliberations about policy matters and, in some cases, to hold public hearings. It’s the right move. But it’s also a fact that COVID-19 and the decisions it has caused have sharpened edges of the digital divide.

While those with a laptop and a steady internet connection can access meetings of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, Salisbury City Council and Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education, there are large pockets of rural Rowan County where fast-enough internet is hard to come by, especially if two or more people are trying to watch media at once. Rowan County’s own broadband map shows those pockets of people are primarily concentrated in western and southeastern Rowan County.

Even when fast internet speeds are available, there are families who choose not to subscribe — some because of money and others because of personal choices. There’s certainly a portion of the population that is content to just use a smartphone’s connection to the internet.

For those folks, particularly the ones who are civic-minded, coronavirus has made it tough to listen and/or participate in public meetings.

Consider the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, which is scheduled to meet digitally Monday at 6 p.m. to hear presentations about tax incentives for a new business that wants to move here and the potential consolidation of several county departments. The tax incentive item includes a public hearing.

Anyone hoping to participate will either need to submit something in advance to public.comment@rowancountync.gov by noon Monday or join the meeting, which will be held digitally, and identify themselves when public comment starts. People can call in, too, and wait until the item appears on the agenda.

For now, it’s not possible to show up at the county commissioners, city council or school board chambers when the meeting starts, take a seat at the back of the room, listen, speak when it’s time and leave after that item is finished.

It’s not fair to throw stones at any elected or appointed official for that change. Local governing bodies shouldn’t stop meeting entirely. They’re taking prudent, public-health-focused steps, and agendas for the commissioners, city council and school board include instructions about how to participate in the new, digital meetings. But not all business must go on as society continues adapting to COVID-19. If they haven’t already, governing boards from county commissioners to town councils should delay any public hearings that aren’t time-sensitive until after Gov. Roy Cooper lifts his stay-at-home order.

Particularly if the North Carolina’s current state continues into May, any public hearings that cannot be delayed should include alternative means to submit public comments. Perhaps that involves people calling a staff member to express their opinion or leaving a voicemail after calling a dedicated number. Alternatively, government boards could provide a location for people to place handwritten comments.

In a new reality that’s required a rapid transition to online communication, local government must meet its constituents where they are.

For public meetings, that should involve some additional consideration about how those without fast internet access can make their voice heard.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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