A new petition is circulating from the BetterCarrboro listserv encouraging immediate in-person meetings for the Carrboro Town Council. One signer writers, “Time to stop hiding behind Zoom curtain. Real people are not digital images.”

As of this writing, the petition has 14 signatures. I disagree that Zoom meetings have limited public participation or are different than in-person meetings – as the parent of young kids, I’ve been able to attend meetings for the first time….ever.

The petition makes an equity argument, citing high bandwidth, but there’s always been a way to participate in virtual meetings through the phone. And babysitters are expensive. As both gas prices and COVID-19 cases rise, it seems like we can think about ways to expand civic participation instead of limiting it to those who have the time, energy, and ability to attend in-person meetings.

Washington DC, for example, is continuing the hybrid approach to meetings – based on similar feedback. Lawmakers in California are considering a similar approach.

I would encourage the Carrboro Town Council to think more broadly about public participation when they do return to in-person meetings on April 12.

Here’s why:

First, research conducted before the pandemic shows that people who participate in local government meetings are not representative of their communities. They skew White, older, male, long-time resident, homeowner, and are more likely to oppose new housing. The same researchers looked at who participated in public meetings during the pandemic and found that it was very similar: participants are not representative of larger communities and “similarly overwhelmingly opposed to the construction of new housing.” From the abstract:

These individuals overwhelmingly (and to a much greater degree than the general public) oppose new housing construction. These participatory inequalities have important policy implications and may be contributing to rising housing costs.

Carrboro does a great job of letting people people know about meetings: there are town emails and bulletin boards around town, and giant highway signs, and banners. There are also lots of ways to give input: there are meetings and open houses and targeted participation processes.

I would be curious if the people giving feedback look like the demographics of our town. A cursory search of who has signed the petition shows so far, it’s…not. So what are ways we can increase feedback from more people, in more ways, on more platforms, in different contexts? And how do we ensure that that feedback is weighed as heavily as in-person comments?

Those are the questions I hope we’re all thinking about instead of how to return to the same.

In the last municipal election cycle, we helped increase turnout by over 20 percent. We're all volunteers who care deeply about Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and we're working to make Chapel Hill and Carrboro more vibrant, accessible, fun, and sustainable.  Please consider a small donation to help us keep our digital lights on, host events, and hire students to do data deep-dives.

Melody Kramer is a Peabody-award winning journalist whose work has appeared on NPR and member stations around the country, as well as in publications ranging from National Geographic to Esquire Magazine....