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Virtual Meetings Muzzle Public Comment

Editor's Corner

Even though Norman Green was kicked out of the County Legislature meeting in October, he still was able to make a point. In a world of ZOOM due to the pandemic, public comment has been reduced. Submitted photo

Twenty viewers were able to watch what was happening during the Dunkirk Common Council meeting via the feed from Dunkirk Access through the YouTube Channel on Tuesday night. Pictures, however, did not tell the whole story.

In a meeting that lasted about 21 minutes, the audio difficulties lasted throughout. Whatever the council did, even though it was happening right before your very eyes, was still happening behind closed doors.

No sound. No transparency — even if the full meeting was made available with sound hours after it took place.

This, of course, is not just about Dunkirk. During a Nov. 16 budget workshop and hearing held in Jamestown, Post-Journal reporter Dennis Phillips became so frustrated with the poor picture and audio quality he went right to the source — at City Hall and sat in attendance until the conclusion of the meeting.

While restrictions remain in place due to COVID-19, government continues to operate. To their credit, they are doing a tremendous service and job.

Police, fire departments, emergency response teams and area road crews have not taken any time off since the pandemic began in March. You could make the argument their job has become tougher since some are now entering households where the virus may be present or dealing with those who may be infected and do not even know it.

Local representation, however, is not at its best — and it is not all the fault of the elected officials. The technology we rely on so much nowadays — and become frustrated with the smallest of delays in our own private lives — has not always been perfect during meetings that in some cases are closed to the public.

Though a number of smaller boards are meeting in person and requiring those in attendance to wear facial coverings, a second COVID surge has led to many governments getting back to the ZOOM formats for safety reasons in recent weeks. Though this is understood, it is not the best practice to allow for public comment.

Dunkirk’s closed-door, silent meeting this week was a perfect example. Council members, who complained about a lack of transparency by the Mayor Wilfred Rosas’ administration in previous years, never announced to the public or had resolutions prepared that it would be voting on a $24 million budget.

First Ward Councilman Don Williams Jr., one of those who spoke against allowing such practices that are referred to as walk-in resolutions, made his case against this type of unfair government in June 2019. “When we get a walk-in, especially when they deal with money, I believe that it should be on the prefiled agenda that goes to the public; so that anyone that reads the agenda, they then know what is happening.”

So much for Williams’ good intentions back then. His most recent hypocritical actions — along with the rest of council — not only kept the public in the dark on a major happening during a health crisis, it also shut down any community input. If residents are not allowed to be at the meeting, how are they able to make their voice heard?

Fredonia Village Board, which has possibly the best public-access staff in the county thanks to Chip Riewaldt, has had few, if any, glitches. But dealing with the Village Board is a whole other ordeal.

During the September water emergency — and in its aftermath — at least one advocacy group was shutdown from making a public comment about the major inconvenience that affected thousands of users for 20 days. That reeks of arrogance. Boards exist to represent everyone they serve, not just those who are going to agree with them.

Besides, during this pandemic when we are forced to be apart, all elected officials need to be working harder than ever to make government accessible. Just because constituents can see a meeting through video streaming online, on Facebook or in some cases on cable television, it does not mean they are allowed to be involved.

October’s Chautauqua County Legislature meeting, held in Mayville, was refreshingly different. Residents told lawmakers they were critical of a Ripley solar project while the major controversy over a resolution being pulled over the naming of a new Democratic Election Commissioner Luz Torres brought comment from both sides.

Even though Democratic Party Chair Norman Green was kicked out of the meeting, it was still good government. Voices were heard, which always strengthens a democracy.

Municipal and school boards in these unprecedented times must strive for even more transparency and allow for dialogue from residents– even if it means an extra 20 to 40 minutes — so constituents can at least believe they are part of the process. Without those standards, it might as well be what Dunkirk’s council meeting was to viewers on Tuesday.

Total silence.

John D’Agostino is the regional editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and the Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments by calling 366-3000, ext. 253 or email at jdagostino@observertoday.com

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