At a listening session held last week by the Coalition to Create a Martha’s Vineyard Housing Bank, there were close to 150 people listening in during the height of the Zoom session.
Last spring, when a rumor circulated that the Tisbury select board was going to eliminate tennis courts on Center Street, more than 80 people showed up for a Zoom meeting to make sure that didn’t happen.
And hundreds of people have attended the half-dozen public hearings involving the proposed field complex at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, giving an unprecedented number of people a chance to weigh in on the controversial proposal.
Even if they held these meetings at the Performing Arts Center at MVRHS, we don’t think as many people would have been there. It’s much easier to flip open your laptop or even your smartphone, rather than make time to go to a meeting. (In some cases that would require parents to get childcare.)
Zoom meetings also allow for easy check-in and check-out. So if a meeting is droning on for hours on something you’re not particularly interested in (we’re looking at you, Tisbury), you can easily tune in and out without disrupting the meeting. The Zoom meetings also provide access to seniors and individuals with disabilities, allowing them to participate in government meetings from the comfort of their homes without having to drive at night or in bad weather.
Once you get beyond people trying to speak while they’re still muted, and starting their remarks by asking, “Can you hear me?” you realize that Zoom has been a boon for public engagement in meetings — allowing people to tune in whenever and wherever they are. There have also been a few “Zoom bombings,” but those are easily controlled by putting some safeguards in place.
We’ve seen people sitting on their decks in good weather. We’ve seen people at their dining room tables, at times eating dinner while they watch. And we’ve even seen people tune in from other countries.
That’s why as we inch closer to normalcy — this week even more restrictions were lifted on gatherings, and there are hints that soon indoor mask wearing will be eased by the Centers for Disease Control — we hope that town and county leaders will keep Zoom as part of the way they keep the community engaged. And we’d love to see public officials find a way to incorporate Zoom to increase participation in town meetings, though we know there are legal issues involved there surrounding voting. That’s a hurdle, but it shouldn’t be a roadblock.
As we return to in-person meetings sometime in the not-too-distant future, individuals can still go to meetings at the Katharine Cornell Theater or at the PAC, or at the headquarters of the MVC, but we hope the select boards, county commissioners, MVC commissioners, and other boards will remember that not everyone can get out to meetings. And while many meetings are filmed by MVTV for airing on local access cable, not everyone has access to local access television, as more people are cutting the cord and using streaming services for their home entertainment because of the high cost of cable TV.
Just like with education, there is no perfect substitute for that in-person engagement. But Zoom has become a valuable tool when in-person meetings are not possible. It’s been one of the real pluses of the pandemic, keeping us all together as we stayed apart. We’re all eager to get back to doing more things in person, to be sure. But let’s keep Zoom in our arsenal.