Zooming in on public meetings online

PHOTO: Gywdion M. Williams, Flickr CC-BY
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

Like many of you I’ve become accustomed to attending meetings using video conferencing software. The COVID-19 pandemic demands no less. Entire segments of the economy and educational system have shifted to home-based work.

Right now, all of my professional meetings take place on Zoom. I collaborate on a media project via Google Hangouts. Interviews. Civic organizations. Even hanging out with friends. All online. I’ve resumed some face-to-face activities as health protocols allow. Nevertheless, it’s clear that we’ll be using online meetings in new ways, maybe from now on.

This seems an exciting possibility. In some ways online meetings are more inclusive. They eliminate transportation concerns and allow parents with small children to participate.

That is, if everyone has access to high speed internet. And provided that everyone in the meeting knows how to use audio-visual equipment and maintain reliable streaming connections. Most of us understand this is not yet true.

Without internet connectivity and the necessary skills online meetings become less inclusive. Of particular concern is government transparency in the age of video conferencing.

I’ll begin by sharing an innocent example. My son wanted to attend an online school board meeting to complete the requirements of a Boy Scout merit badge. He was also curious what the schools planned to do for the new academic year amid the pandemic. (We live in Balsam, which is in the Grand Rapids school district).

We logged onto the meeting and I left him to watch the proceedings. About twenty minutes later he waived me over for help. There was no sound. After checking everything and attempting to reconnect, we realized that the sound problem was on the other end. They were broadcasting without sound because of feedback from having too many live microphones next to speakers.

At first, school officials in the comments said they were working on the problem. But it soon became evident they didn’t know how to fix it. The meeting continued without sound until it was over. Only the people in the board room or connected by the conference call could hear anything.

Nothing nefarious was at work here, but it’s a problem that could breed nefariousness if not addressed.

For instance, how do we know where and how local elected officials are making decisions under COVID-19 protocols? Theoretically, all decisions are made at public meetings, as open meeting laws demand. But the “always on” connectivity of video conferencing and third-party messaging apps would be a tempting option for any public official.

Flash back to 1994, before anyone on the Iron Range knew what the internet was. That year the Minnesota Supreme Court removed Mayor James Collins of Hibbing and two city councilors, Steve Saban and Ray Sogard, from office for three separate violations of the state open meeting law. Another city councilor, Frank Modich, was granted leniency because he was newly elected and demonstrated unfamiliarity with the law.

What happened was that councilors used closed sessions about city employee contracts to discuss the planning and policy for the city.

I raise this issue not to dredge up hard feelings, but to point out that when I started reporting local news in the early 2000s this case still weighed heavily on Hibbing City Hall and members of the media. Efforts were made to keep meetings transparent. Reporters kept their eyes peeled for signs of illegal meetings.

But today? There are many fewer reporters working on the Iron Range now. I suspect your average citizen knows less about their local government than ever, even though it’s arguably the most important government body in our day-to-day lives. How many of us have our minds made up about November’s presidential race but can’t even name the candidates for our city, county, or school board races?

And how could we ever know if a local government was breaking the open meeting law? I can count dozens of ways they might do so unintentionally. If elected officials wanted to break the law it would be easy.

One way to fix this is to make it easier for citizens to connect to their local government meetings. The better the online delivery system, the more people will be able to watch and learn about local issues.

Online meetings need to be transparent, open to all. Elected officials need to hold open discussions before and after the video meetings to allow citizens time to discuss issues without the pressures of having to make a timed presentation. And every public board or council must know how their equipment works and be able to troubleshoot technical problems on the fly.

It’s not an option. It’s the law. We may be in uncharted territory, but we must still navigate by the values of responsive local government, open meetings, and representative democracy.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. joe musich says

    And the bottlenecks contionue to grow as much as we want that not to happen. Until we want that undone and reversed information availablity will wither. Is cell service as limited at wifi generally speaking up that way ? With fewer reporters and therefore less reporting I fear we already see the affects. We we to be incredibly over stimiylated or under stimulated these days. As someone working for a newpaper I am not envious of your position to perform your mission. I must disagree with the former Hibbing Tribune muckety muck, national funding is needed. Until Regan made a mess of things public televison performed quite well. Be it electronic or printed ssomething must change so meetings are availalbe to all.

  2. Right on. And there definitely are MANY people excluded as there are still many people who do not or cannot use the internet.

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