Rep. Justine A. Caldwell and Senator Victoria Gu are sponsoring legislation to make it easier for residents to participate in local government by allowing advisory boards and commissions to hold meetings via videoconference and allowing residents to testify remotely in certain local meetings including town council, planning, zoning and school committee meetings.
“New England is the home of big town hall meetings where neighbors get together to discuss issues that impact our lives,” said Senator Gu (D-Dist. 38, Charlestown, Westerly, South Kingstown). “But if we want more people to be engaged and have a voice in their government, we need to make it easier for people to fit this into their already hectic and busy lives, and we need to make it more accessible for seniors or anyone else who has a hard time getting to the meetings.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, local government bodies across the state held public meetings on Zoom or other video conferencing software. Residents could watch the meetings from home and offer testimony remotely. As business returned to normal, most communities did away with this option.
The new legislation (2023-H 5722) would allow municipal and state bodies that are advisory-only to host meetings via videoconference, which could encourage attendance and participation. It would also require town and city councils, school committees, zoning boards, planning boards and quasi-public entities such as RIPTA to allow virtual testimony. That, advocates say, would better encourage democratic participation.
“During COVID, we had record numbers of parents advocating for their kids because they could watch committee meetings while taking care of babies, supervising homework, cooking dinner or putting kids to bed, then jump in to testify when it was their turn to speak. Youth also found it easier to testify at meetings during COVID when they could participate remotely,” said Leanne Barrett, Senior Policy Analyst at Rhode Island KIDS COUNT and Coordinator of the RIght from the Start Campaign. “But since things returned to ‘normal,’ we’ve seen participation drop off as many parents and youth struggle with transportation or just can’t find the time to attend long meetings in person with so many other critical responsibilities.”
“Passing this bill would be a big step in the right direction in removing systemic barriers that often prevent parents and caregivers from sharing their experiences and their policy recommendations with state decisionmakers,” said Ramona Santos Torres, Executive Director of Parents Leading for Educational Equity (PLEE).
“It’s not realistic in today’s day and age, when people are trying to run a business, take care of their kids and handle other obligations to expect them to attend meetings that can stretch late into the night just to have their voice heard,” said Representative Caldwell (D-Dist. 30, East Greenwich, West Greenwich). “This bill will improve democratic participation which will make our state stronger.”