Editorial — Alternative public participation
During a recent planning board meeting in Camden, members discussed allowing public participation in meetings via video. While we agree that adjustments should be made to adapt to changing times and technology, we encourage thoughtful consideration and caution.
In the past, we have seen participation in meetings by town officials via telephone and Skype, but extending that privilege to the public could create more problems than it is worth.
We understand many area residents do not live here year-round and might wish to address issues that arise when they are out of town. Other residents travel for work and cannot attend a meeting on a particular date. We agree there needs to be a way for them to be included and their thoughts aired.
Currently, public comments are accepted via regular mail and email and distributed to planning board members prior to meetings. Those comments are considered part of the public record.
No decisions were made during the meeting, but ideas talked about included allowing pre-taped video testimony as well as live-streamed video such as Skype.
With pre-taped comments there is no opportunity to ask questions or clarify a statement. As Planning Board Vice Chairman Lowrie Sargent put it, it is like asking your TV questions and expecting a response.
Planning board members also questioned if video is any more compelling than a statement in writing.
The live-stream video service Skype is an option that received more positive feedback, though concerns about video and audio quality were voiced. Those concerns are valid. At times, even those attending meetings in person are not able to hear speakers or understand them. Add video into the mix and the ratio will rise.
As will the length of meetings.
To their credit, planning board members came up with a few restrictions that might help limit meeting length and quality issues. They suggested anyone who wants to Skype with planning board members should give advance notice as well as provide a person and equipment to receive the transmission on the planning board end. A valid reason for not attending the meeting in person — like being out of town — also would be required.
A town-owned projector in the Washington Street Conference Room would allow video clarity, but no other options were presented for sound, or other locations such as the Camden Opera House.
The recording secretary for the planning board also suggested people who Skype during meeting also provide a written summary of their comments, which kind of defeats the purpose.
The meeting ended with planning board members requesting that the code enforcement officer create a policy for consideration.
A few towns across the United States allow video testimony, but many more stream meetings for live or later viewing, including Camden. If Skype testimony were allowed, it would be imperative it be viewable and heard by all, including those streaming the meetings and in the audience.
We look forward to seeing how area municipalities are able to integrate technology during meetings and sincerely hope the efforts lead to greater public participation in local government.