Not everyone learned to bake sourdough or crochet mittens during the COVID-19 pandemic, but many people picked up at least one new skill: videoconferencing. Once seldomly used outside the business world, software such as Zoom became routine as people connected virtually to school, medical appointments, trivia nights and more throughout stay-home orders to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Videoconferencing also became a necessity for Western North Carolina’s local governments, which are required by state law to make their meetings open to the public. In Asheville and Buncombe County, the technology allowed constituents to participate in those meetings from afar, sharing their comments in real time.
As a result, argues Patrick Conant, area residents had more access to their government officials. “The global pandemic required our local government to figure out new ways to conduct public business,” explains Conant, the director of local governmental transparency project Sunshine Request. “While that presented some challenges in terms of staff capacity and occasional technical issues, the work of our local government became more accessible than ever before.”
But as local governments end their pandemic states of emergency, they are starting to return to in-person meetings. In Asheville and Buncombe County, that has also meant a return to in-person public comment — and the end of live remote comment, despite there being no technological obstacle to continuing the practice. The decision has drawn concern from Conant and other citizens who say it reduces their ability to participate in local government.
“It is the responsibility of the city and county to make it easier, not harder, for members of the public to participate in the government process,” says Conant. “It is a step in the wrong direction to remove options for participation in public meetings.”
While Asheville City Council and Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meetings had previously been made available online, both governmental bodies required members of the public and media outlets to view proceedings by livestream following their respective local state of emergency declarations on March 12 and 19, 2020. City constituents were initially able to comment on Council meetings only through voicemail or an online form, both of which had to be submitted by 5 p.m. the day before the meeting. The city then began offering a live call-in feature for public comment on May 22, 2020.
The county board also took comment only by email and voicemail at the start of the pandemic. On Sept. 1, 2020, that policy changed to allow comment via live video or phone calls at the start of each meeting while prohibiting email and voicemail comments.
As COVID-19 vaccinations became more widespread and cases of the disease began dropping in late spring, the Board of Commissioners returned to in-person meetings on May 4. Comment took place under a hybrid model that allowed residents to either call in live or speak in person. That policy shifted again in June, when the board transitioned to fully in-person public comment and eliminated the call-in option.
In turn, Asheville City Council held its first in-person meeting since the start of the pandemic on June 8, with live public comment limited to those who could attend. The city continues to accept email and voicemail comments received by 9 a.m. the morning of each Council meeting; however, those comments are not read aloud or otherwise referenced.
An issue of access
Members of the public first voiced concern about those changes shortly after the new public comment rules were announced. Asheville resident Melanie Noyes spoke out against the city’s policy during the June 8 Council meeting, noting that the in-person requirement for live comment coincided with the public hearing on the city’s fiscal year 2021-22 budget and ongoing pressure for changes to the Asheville Police Department.
“While it doesn’t come as a surprise that they would create obstacles for folks by removing virtual comment, it is also important to point out the pattern of censorship within the last year amid a growing amount of people that show up for racial justice,” Noyes tells Xpress. “I see this as a pattern that has arisen because they are getting a lot of heat for mistakes and demands to defund APD that they don’t want to answer to.”
Resident Grace Barron-Martinez points out that while the city allows commenters to submit written remarks and leave voicemails in advance of a meeting, only comments made during a meeting directly reach both the community and city leaders.
“When you get the opportunity to speak at those meetings, you’re not just speaking to Council.” she says. “There are people who are listening in our community, who are watching at home. It’s not just to speak to Council. It’s to voice your concerns publicly.”
Both Noyes and Barron-Martinez also note that call-in public comment provided an access point for people who might struggle to attend public meetings in person due to work, child care, transportation or a number of other barriers.
“Continuing virtual live public comment allows for working-class folks, parents, folks with disabilities and many others the accessibility that helps to overcome these obstacles that disproportionately affect our BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] communities,” says Noyes. “Without making public comment accessible to everyone, we are not getting everyone to the table that deserves to be there.”
And Conant with Sunshine Request says that the changes being made to public comment protocols are occurring behind closed doors.
“Neither Asheville City Council nor the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners have debated this change in process during a public meeting,” he notes. “It is not clear that a majority of Asheville City Council or the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners supports these changes in process, and the public has not been given an opportunity to provide input.”
Despite that criticism, both city and county governments say that they are providing adequate opportunities for members of the public to speak. What citizens may feel is a right to share their thoughts during those meetings, emphasizes Asheville City Attorney Brad Branham, is not technically protected by state law.
Branham explains that City Council is only required to provide at least one period for public comment per month at a regular meeting. Council is also authorized to adopt “reasonable rules” governing the conduct of the public comment period.
By including public comment at the end of each biweekly meeting, the city exceeds state public comment requirements, Branham says. He also notes that there is no requirement in North Carolina that remote public comment be taken.
“The city of Asheville highly values and appreciates the robust and thoughtful engagement we see day in and day out with our residents, not only at City Council meetings, but also at committee meetings. We recognize this is the hallmark of civic participation,” Mayor Esther Manheimer wrote in a statement to Xpress. “We would also ask that everyone understand that, now that we are returning to in-person meetings, we are returning to in-person engagement. People who do not wish to attend in person can send their comments to City Council.”
“Our procedures allow significantly more opportunity for public comment than is required by state policy,” Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman adds. “Our general approach is that people who want to address the commission during our meetings for any items on the agenda need to attend the meeting, so we are handling the public comment process in the same way we handle the public involvement in all the other agenda items addressed during commission meetings.”
Newman notes that his personal cellphone number is published on the county website so people who cannot attend meetings in person can reach him at any time. He says commissioners make time to speak with and meet with constituents on an ongoing basis outside of regular meetings.
And while Asheville City Council’s Vision 2036 states under its core theme of “a connected and engaged community” that city leaders will “use the latest technologies and methods to communicate with, engage, and empower community participants,” Branham says that the costs and logistics of operating remote comment technology are not in the city budget or priorities.
“Conducting virtual meetings over the past year has greatly advanced the technological tools to provide for the conduct of public business. However, the staff and technology resources required to provide these resources was immense,” says Branham. “In addition, despite these advancements, the virtual tools used to connect the public remained somewhat unreliable. Now that in-person meetings are once again permitted, it is far more efficient and cost effective to conduct these sessions in person.”