In virtual meetings, public access not guaranteed

April Saul | April 29, 2021 | More Issues, Social
Thanks to video calls, more people can join local government meetings. But the mute button has officials cutting off comments
Credit: (Courtesy of Mo'Neke Singleton-Ragsdale)
A screenshot taken by Mo’Neke Singleton-Ragsdale while virtually attending a Camden County Commissioners’ meeting in March 2021; she, like other attendees, was only able to see her own name and that of the county officials attending.

If the coronavirus pandemic has created a dystopian landscape of masked humans wary of physical encounters, it has also opened a virtual door that may prove hard to close.

Through platforms like Zoom, remote public participation in local government and school district meetings has allowed more people to interact with their representatives.

But in New Jersey and elsewhere, growing pains persist — with communities showcasing their tech expertise or apologizing for their lack of it, and activists attempting to question lawmakers electronically at a time when dissenting opinions can be muted with the push of a button.

After the pandemic took hold, and emergency orders shot down most public events and limited the number of people who could gather, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs issued recommendations for remote public meetings. It said that “ensuring public participation and comment is the most significant concern” and advised lawmakers to use “multiple means of accepting public comment” — including text comments, email, tweets, and phone calls.

Not every municipality seems to have taken that suggestion seriously.

Muted in Woodlynne

In the tiny borough of Woodlynne, where fewer than a half-dozen attendees usually ask questions at council meetings, Mayor Joseph Chukwueke decided during the pandemic to limit comments to five minutes, which includes responses from lawmakers. Chukwueke said the rule had existed previously but had not been enforced. He has recently started to allow only one member of the public to speak on a particular subject, and mutes rule breakers.

“I’m a Christian,” said Chukwueke, “and I walk in love … if I try to walk in love with you and your time is up, I will tell you your time is up.”

Camden public education advocate Dava Salas said she believes certain activists have been prevented from making comments by phone at that city’s remote board of education meetings. Salas said she gave her name and email address to a coordinator in order to sign up to comment at a recent meeting and was told the list was full; she said she then created a new email and submitted that along with her maiden name and was allowed to speak.

Credit: (Photo by April Saul for NJ Spotlight News)
Camden resident and activist Dava Salas at a March 2021 demonstration at Camden’s City Hall to protest the closure of three public schools in the city.

“It’s corrupt,” said Salas, who helped lead an in-person protest two years ago that brought a Camden school board meeting to a halt. School superintendent Katrina McCombs said she wasn’t aware of any deliberate omissions but said it was “unfortunate to hear that.”

Rutgers public policy professor Stephen Danley said that for activists, remote meetings are particularly challenging. Before the pandemic, said Danley, the “playbook” for lawmakers to control a typical meeting was to “limit testimony to two or three minutes and say that community members are being aggressive before cutting them off … or go into closed session for hours so that coming to the meeting is more costly for community members.”

Easier to muzzle dissent

Virtual meetings, he said, make it easier to muzzle dissenting voices. “You can kick people out of the digital space with more ease than physically ejecting them,” said Danley. “There’s increased access, but it comes at the cost of elected officials being able to control the type of participation that happens.”

At a March Camden County Board of Commissioners meeting, Director Lou Cappelli Jr. reacted to Camden Education Association president Keith Benson’s comment that a policy proposal had racial overtones by demanding that Benson’s microphone be shut off.

Camden activist Mo’Neke Singleton-Ragsdale noted that because of the meeting’s internet platform, Cappelli would not have been able to see Benson’s reaction — or that of any other community members present; only the commissioners were visible on the screen.

“I’ve noticed,” she said, “that people are bolder and ruder at virtual meetings.” The county board meetings, said Singleton-Ragsdale, “are more like talking on the phone now,” she said. “It’s a total disconnect.”

Chukwueke said he has tried to maintain decorum at Woodlynne meetings, ejecting one resident for using a profanity to describe lawmakers in the chat section, which resident Robert Baum equated to “whispering in the audience during an in-person meeting.” Chukwueke said if he had heard the man use the slur before the pandemic, “I would have walked him out.”

Accused of trying to limit participation

Camden city officials were accused of trying to limit participation in March when some residents were unable to attend a virtual city council meeting that was capped at 100 attendees. After an outcry, city leaders decided to pay Zoom an extra $50 a month to accommodate 500 people.

Camden city municipal clerk Luis Pastoriza said that was the first remote council meeting that had exceeded the Zoom limit, but in-person meetings in Camden council chambers have been capped at 168 people and during discussions of controversial issues, the chamber has been known to overflow.

Unlike the Camden Board of Education meetings — which are streamed on Facebook Live and posted on YouTube — Pastoriza said a city council meeting can be viewed after the fact either by contacting him directly for an internet link or submitting an Open Public Records Act application to request one — a process that might be familiar to activists and journalists but not to many members of the public.

Nichelle Pace, founder of Brand Enchanted Media and VP of the Camden Business Association, met with Camden city officials last month to offer suggestions for remote meetings.

“It’s really not rocket science,” said Pace, who attributed Camden’s problem to “not having enough education and tech experts that actually work in city government.”

Court case in Philadelphia

In some U.S. cities where public comment has been diminished during the pandemic, the issue has wound up in court.

This month, American Civil Liberties Union lawyers filed suit against the Philadelphia School Board on behalf of two community groups. For years, the board and its predecessor, the School Reform Commission, had allowed an unlimited number of speakers three minutes each to testify; meetings lasting five to eight hours were not uncommon. In January, the policy changed to allow up to 10 students and 30 members of the public to speak, with two minutes each instead of three. Activists believed the new policy didn’t provide adequate time for community members to speak on critical issues, and are seeking an injunction to stop it.

In California, the Orange County Board of Supervisors was not allowing remote comment at meetings despite receiving $540 million in federal relief funds. The supervisors kept meeting in person during the pandemic without wearing masks — with some members of the public saying they had to risk their lives to raise their voices. After pressure from the ACLU, the county counsel began reading residents’ emailed comments.

New legislation in California aims to keep the greatest benefit of virtual public meetings — the ability of those who can’t participate in person to interact remotely — even after the pandemic. A bill (AB-339) endorsed by the ACLU would require all meetings to have internet-based attendance, closed-captioning, phone-in options and possibly even translators.

Need ‘to watch these people’

In Cherry Hill, New Jersery, resident watchdog Rena Margulis has attended or viewed every township council meeting — and many zoning and planning board ones — since early 2016. It was that year that she got a form letter in the mail telling her about a zoning issue near her home. She then learned, she said, that, a four-story apartment complex with 400 units was about to be erected across the street from her. Margulis successfully fought the project, then started a Cherry Hill United Facebook page to shore up her watchdog role.

Credit: (Photo by April Saul for NJ Spotlight News)
Cherry Hill resident and activist Rena Margulis at Cherry Parke Condominiums, which were slated to be torn down and replaced in 2016, when Margulis discovered and successfully fought the plan.

The switch to remote meetings hasn’t fazed Margulis, although she said that at council meetings, township officials sometimes tell her to ask all her questions at once and then mute her; she then reminds them, she said, that she may have follow-ups.

Margulis said that in some ways virtual meetings have made her life easier. “You are muted and can eat dinner and do your dishes while you’re keeping track of what’s going on,” she said, “and you don’t have to dress up to go.”

But it makes her mission no less important.

“It is necessary,” she said, “to watch these people.”