Letters to the Editor

Letter to the editor: Online-only meetings erode public trust

Posted on November 15th, 2023 By: Justin Teerlinck

I write to address the proposal to switch to online-only meetings for some aspects of city government business. The push for remote meetings makes perfect sense in the private sector. Thanks to the wonders of technology, rural folk can have access to cutting-edge health care via telemedicine. Tech workers no longer need to be shackled to a high cost of living to be near a company headquarters in an overcrowded urban metropolis.

The same technology has a valid place in government. Meetings that combine in-person with virtual attendance are a boon to access and productivity. Now, people can attend meetings via remote settings if they are ill, running late, or have scheduling conflicts. Hybridized online/in-person meetings create opportunities to overcome obstacles and extend the ability of public servants to conduct the peoples’ business.

That said, it would be a grave mistake to switch to online-only meetings as a default except as a temporary measure to ensure continuity of government during an extraordinary public health crisis, like the COVID pandemic. There are numerous reasons for this. First, the public expects transparency and accountability from its servants.

Many people have noted a decline in respect and civility in government settings, both from and between public officials. This began long before the internet existed. In Gig Harbor, we are blessed with city servants and elected officials whose maturity, integrity and professionalism sets a high bar. However, it’s not uniform agreement that defines this integrity, but the opposite: The fact that people can disagree on many issues, and do so while working elbow to elbow and face to face, while remaining civil and respectful of viewpoint diversity. Decorum is the backbone of democratic, civic engagement, but its essence, while invisible, is a skillset that can only be honed through personal, face-to-face interactions. What will the future of government look like after a generation passes where public servants were deprived of the opportunity to hone these foundational skills?

In-person meetings do more than give us opportunity to practice decorum. They provide opportunities for relationship building, problem solving, and dispute resolution that cannot exist in the tunnel vision of virtual meetings.

Lately, American government at all levels has suffered from a lack of credibility. In the private sector, working from home may be a natural step in the evolving relationship between work and home life. In government, performing the bulk of the peoples’ business from home sets a bad precedent that will further erode public trust in our institutions.

Furthermore, compulsory online meetings could have a deleterious impact on the privacy of participants, forcing them to choose between public participation and personal privacy. Public servants and citizens alike should not have to display the interior spaces of their homes as the cost of service to their community.

Additionally, while the city has done an amazing job with setting up and managing the hardware that makes online meetings possible, many peoples’ home setups are neither safe from hacking, nor reliable. Relying on the functioning of meeting participants’ own tech set ups invites chaos and disruption—in fact it has already caused disruptions during a city meeting where a participants’ system decided to perform updates at the moment their input was needed. The more the city relies on meeting participants to attend online from home, the more these problems will arise.

Finally, I fear that having online-only meetings without proven, substantial savings in carbon emissions will only lead to cynicism, apathy, and accusations of greenwashing. The last thing we need in this environmental crisis we’re living through, is for more people to question its existence. But that will be the net result unless policy is connected to evidence and sound science.

I want to thank the city for fostering an open, transparent debate on the merits of this issue. It does us all credit that we have a voice in policies that impact us, and most importantly, it models civic values when we can disagree without it becoming personal.

Justin Teerlink

Gig Harbor

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