Editorial: In-person participation remains pandemic casualty

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 5, 2022

In-person participation in Salisbury City Council meetings is one of the casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the better part of the previous two years, the Salisbury City Council has met online only. Members waded through one of the most hotly debated decisions in the city’s history — the relocation of “Fame” — in online meetings. During that time, they’ve also discussed firefighter and police officer compensation, approved new housing developments, altered rules for historic landmarks, passed budgets, adopted a nondiscrimination ordinance and approved a Main Street plan.

In other words, people who wanted to participate in discussion about nearly everything considered by the City Council in the previous two years have needed to learn how to operate modern video conferencing software. That’s easy enough for some, but not for all. The same is true for a social media live stream, except it doesn’t provide for an equal level or participation.

While council members are elected to make decisions on behalf of the broader public, the public needs to be able to say when they prefer a certain decision or don’t like a prior vote. In person is the most accessible way to do that for a swath of the community. Video conferencing software is easiest for others.

There are understandable hesitations to return to the council chambers because of the spread of COVID-19, particularly amid a spike in cases caused by the omicron variant, but the council has options for providing safe in-person and remote participation. The council can require masks and physical distancing. It can enforce strict capacity limitations and ask department directors to participate remotely to add space for the public.

Council members also do not need to disregard their personal misgivings about in-person participation. Just as the council could allow public comments from callers or online participants, council members could call in or participate virtually.

Even as the Salisbury City Council has remained mostly online (there have been some exceptions), other bodies have returned to in-person meetings. The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education is a notable one — having held in-person conversations on many controversial COVID-19-related decisions. Rowan County commissioners also returned to in-person meetings long ago, but they’ve probably gone over ideal gathering limits during meetings on particularly contentious topics.

Rising COVID-19 cases may not be the time to go back to in-person meetings, but the City Council should reconsider its modus operandi as soon as it’s feasible.

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