CommunityCoronavirusCovid-19

Will Americans Opt for Face-to-Face or Virtual?

A Decision is in the Works for How D.C. Council Conducts Business

District residents are looking forward to looking their elected leaders in the eye soon after 16 months of conducting city business virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think government should be able to function whether it be for in-person meetings or if they feel it is necessary, go to a hybrid model where people are in person but can access proceedings virtually,” Charles Gaither, a Ward 4 resident, said. “I would agree that in-person meetings are more engaging and meeting virtually is not an ideal situation sometimes.”

Gaither’s sentiments are reflected by many District residents who want to be able to contact their council members or commissioners in a manner that is more personable.

While supporters of virtual meetings say it allows more residents to participate in government because they don’t have to come to a physical building to be a part of a hearing or proceeding, some District residents say their leaders don’t engage them enough virtually, especially because at any time technology can be used to cut them off.

The discussion throughout the District comes as the council ponders when it will open hearings and meetings to the public for the upcoming fall as it grapples with weighty issues such as redistricting and responding to the emerging delta variant in the city.

THE COUNCIL

Lindsey Walton, communications director for D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, said in-person council meetings will likely occur after the summer recess, which may start in late July or early August and end in late September.

Additionally, she said, council members are able to have their staffers have to come to the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest to do their work. She noted that public access to the Wilson Building resumed began after D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser lifted coronavirus restrictions in June.

“People can come by and visit their council members in their offices now,” Walton said. “But that is up to the council member and what they want to do about constituents visiting them.”

BOARD OF EDUCATION

Jacque Patterson, an at-large D.C. Board of Education member, said he looks forward to resuming in-person meetings.

“We have to make technological adjustments so people can come to our meetings and for those who want to participate virtually,” he said. “We have found attendance is better when people can attend virtually because they don’t have to travel to our meetings.”

Patterson said he has heard from residents that elected officials use virtual meetings to “hide” from residents, meaning they use the technology to either ignore concerns or cut off comments.

“Elected officials should allow the people to confront them on issues they are concerned about,” he said. “No elected official should mute a constituent. It is wrong to put a person on mute because of their tone.”

ADVISORY NEIGHBORHOOD COMMISSIONERS

Salim Adofo, chairman of the 8C advisory neighborhood commission in Ward 8, said his commission will hold in-person meetings before the end of July.

However, Stacey Lincoln, the commissioner for district 4A02 in Ward 4, said his colleagues haven’t decided when they will resume in-person public meetings.

“We have not discussed that yet,” Lincoln said. “I do favor returning to in-person meetings. It seems to me that more gets done. When you are virtual, you can turn the camera off but that can’t be done in person. You have to deal with that person face to face. When you are in person, you can’t hide behind technical issues.”

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