Zoomocracy: Local Government in the Age of COVID

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COVID-19 shut down everything in March, including local government, and it altered Connecticut’s open meeting law, forcing governments to figure out how to hold a public hearing via Zoom. 

“To be frank it was quite a learning curve. We give credit to municipalities in terms of taking this on and finding pathways to see what works for them,” said Jonathan Wharton, associate dean of the school of graduate and professional studies at Southern Connecticut State University.

Wharton and Jodie Gil, a journalism professor at the university, surveyed 95 Connecticut cities and towns about how they conducted their meetings. 

Cities and towns were beginning public meetings about their local budgets just as coronavirus shut everything down. 

As COVID-19 moved hearings online, 70% of the municipalities they surveyed had as many citizens or more citizens testify in budget deliberations as in years past.

“We did see more people participating and the usual gadflies, the people who would participate in meetings, would usually call in,” Wharton said.  

Only about a quarter of the 95 cities and towns saw a decrease in public participation. 

Wharton said not everyone has the access to technology, but cities and towns found ways to help everyone participate. 

“It wasn’t a big number of people who participated but we did see at least it was one where they still found a pathway to engage,” Wharton added. 

Members of the legislature’s Public Health Committee earlier this week debated postponing a controversial bill because they are unable to hold the public hearing in person. 

“This is a good reminder to our state lawmakers that this can work,” he said. 

The General Assembly adjourned in March and didn’t come back into session -- with the exception of two days -- until this month. 

“Maybe state government can function online and maybe the general assembly and officials don’t necessarily have to worry so much,” Wharton said. 

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