New Jersey is famous for its unyielding commitment to home rule. In total area New Jersey ranks 47th of the 50 states. Its nine million residents make it the most densely populated state in the union. Government in New Jersey is intensely local with 565 municipalities of various forms. 16 of those municipalities are right here in Cape May County.
The 2020 pandemic forced those municipalities to innovate. They had to find ways to offer public access to government meetings. They had to develop ways to allow the public to ask questions of its local leaders from remote locations. Some did an excellent job; others offered the barest bone telephone conferencing. Now with the indoor capacity restrictions lifted, some of those municipalities are returning to in person only meetings, losing the momentum for broader access that was gained during 2020.
What we should be doing is using the available technology, technology we would not have dreamed of using just a few years ago, to further government transparency and citizen involvement. It is easy to see why.
This is a county that depends largely on property taxes for municipal government, for school district funding and for county activities. Yet so many property owners are not in residence for significant parts of the year. One half of all the second homes in the state are located in Cape May County. Should not those individuals with such large investments in our county be able to follow the workings of local government? Many others who are permanent residents winter away from the county. They have the same rights of participation when they are in Florida as they do when they are here.
A number of municipalities hold their meetings during the workday. Some argue that doing so is a convenience for the municipal employees who are needed to give reports to the governing body. Where is the same concern for citizens, taxpayers, who have jobs? Remote access to meetings not only allows participation from a distance, it also promotes asynchronous access. Individuals can watch the meeting when it is convenient to them. It represents another important aspect of citizen access.
In today’s world technology is readily available to promote remote video access to government meetings. We cannot back away from that now. The idea that cost is an impediment is fanciful. It serves the purposes of those who do not want to move in that direction. We should be able to figure out how to pay for effective and efficient remote access.
Citizens must demand that municipal governments do not once again move out of view. The technology presents us with issues to be worked out. But we are perfectly capable of dealing with them if civic engagement and citizen participation are high priorities. Some advocates are calling for the temporary changes to the state’s public meeting regulations to be made permanent. It would be so much better just to have our municipalities all agree to remote access and participation.
Let’s be clear, we are not talking about telephone conferencing technology. Video access is essential if citizens are to see the same presentations the governing body is seeing. Telephone access comes with a host of problems including leaving the public often wondering who is speaking.
We are also talking about remote interactive participation. The idea that some municipalities have adopted which provide a video recording of the meeting, but limits participation to those who show up in person, defeats the ultimate goal.
The pandemic provided an opportunity for us to explore new forms of public participation in the workings of government. Our task is to improve on what we did in 2020, not to retreat from advances in transparency.
Bible quote: Matthew 7:12 “Therefore, however you want people to treat you, so treat them.