Editor’s Column: Conference calls?

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We dwell in a county with what may be the very best broadband access in the state, and yet our remote access to public meetings is limited — with few exceptions — to conference call numbers with crazy feedback, white noise, and the inability to hear anyone who isn’t within a few feet of the call device. And occasionally, the people closest to the device are so judiciously shuffling papers, you can’t hear anything even if the connection is good.

It’s easy to think, “So what? If you care so much, go to the meeting!” Pre-COVID, that might have been a marginally relevant argument, if you willingly discount the elderly, the handicapped, those who don’t drive, people with compromised immune systems, people who want to attend while managing their small business… I could go on. I’ll be perfectly honest, I never thought much about it until COVID hit and I found myself unwilling to accept the health risk of attending multiple public meetings with multiple boards in person. 

Now, however, I’m thinking about all those people who might be interested in the activities of their local government but are unable, for whatever reason, to attend public meetings in person. 

For as long as I can remember, the commissioners’ agenda has included instructions to call in if you need special access (can’t attend in person). This is commendable. Unfortunately, “calling in” is seriously low-tech in our modern world. 

Tuesday’s joint annual meeting between the Eastern Rio Blanco Metropolitan Recreation and Park District and the Town of Meeker, held at the Fairfield Center, was a perfect example. First, the Fairfield Center has notoriously bad acoustics. Second, social distancing (thank you) and mask wearing (double thank you) adds additional pressure to conference call equipment. Even the folks present in the room couldn’t hear one another. 

The world around us is changing, whether we like it or not. It’s possible we’ll be having virtual meetings for the foreseeable future. Making public meetings easily accessible to the public is going to be essential to maintaining a healthy local government. In the same way our government decreed public meetings have to be noticed (announced) according to the law, we may need to consider ways to make sure those public meetings are actually accessible to the public, wherever they are. We no longer live in a face-to-face society, and haven’t for a long time, really. Our elected representatives are always saying they want to hear from the public, so let’s make it easy. 

There has to be a better way than outdated conference calls. We have the technology. Why aren’t we using it?

My friend in the hospital with COVID is still in the hospital a week later, but she assures me she’s getting better every day. I hope to hear good news of her release and return home to her family soon.

UPDATE: Good news! My friend has been released after spending 11 days in the hospital.

By NIKI TURNER | editor@ht1885.com