Should public officials and agencies use readily available and inexpensive technology to facilitate access to public meetings for all citizens? The answer according to some officials, including the board of commissioners of the Lockport Housing Authority, appears to be "no."
At critical periods during the pandemic, the LHA, like many public agencies, suspended in-person board meetings. Meetings were held, and kept open to the public, by remote (a.k.a "virtual") access. When members of the board resumed in-person meetings, they could have continued remote access as well, but chose not to do so.
There is nothing difficult or costly about allowing the public to attend meetings both in person and by remote access. And there is more than one reason for the increasing demand, among citizens and activists groups, for both.
Age, infirmity, disabilities and lack of transportation are some of the more obvious reasons why even few LHA residents have attended, or will attend, a board meeting. Many of the resident families are single-parent households. Residents who work during the day are unlikely to attend meetings which are held in the middle of the afternoon.
Remote access allows people who are unable to attend in person to observe, monitor, and participate in meetings in which issues are deliberated and decisions made, often involving tax-payer money and local businesses. For housing authority residents, many of those decisions directly effect their housing and living conditions.
Equal access and convenience are not the only reasons why public meetings should be as accessible as possible. Without broad-based participation by an attentive public, the intentions, interactions, and ultimate decisions of elected and appointed officials can become unclear, even obscure, whether by default or by design.
Examples of such lapses of clarity are not hard to find.
According to the minutes of the LHA's July board meeting, a "proposal" was put forth, and adopted by a unanimous vote, to cancel the monthly meeting scheduled for August. Notwithstanding any conversation which may have taken place during the meeting, no discussion or explanation regarding the cancellation appears in the minutes of the meeting or in the authority's online records.
The unexplained cancelling of a regularly scheduled board meeting is unusual in itself. Coinciding as it did with serious, ongoing security issues — including raids by federal and local law enforcement agents at a LHA residential property — such lack of information and of clarity in the public record can leave LHA residents and other citizens both perplexed and apathetic.
By enabling the broadest possible participation in official meetings, remote access can help to prevent misunderstanding, misinformation and ambiguity.
To that end, another proposal comes to mind. Members of the LHA board of commissioners can demonstrate, unambiguously and for the record, their commitment to inclusiveness and transparency by voting to allow remote access to all of their public meetings. It is no longer a question of "why," but of "why not."
Richard Bertrand resides in Lockport. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.