It’s time for Charleston City Council to resume meeting in person, but with extra precautions that recognize the pandemic is not over. The Council should also retain the technology that allowed people to monitor and even participate in these meetings.
When COVID-19 arrived last spring, most local governments came together virtually, often through Zoom, where council members could be seen and heard online. Since then, however, many have returned to holding face-to-face meetings. Charleston has remained an exception, but we’re happy to see that change soon.
One of the reasons Charleston has gone virtual for so long is that its council traditionally meets in a 19th century building on Broad and Meeting Streets, in a historic but also quite intimate venue. Journalist Andrew Brown notes that city officials estimated their apartments could only hold around 25 people if everyone stayed at least 10 feet away from others.
Other local city and county councils meet in newer chambers that provide much more room for social distancing for all in attendance.
So while we support the Charleston City Council’s decision to resume face-to-face meetings on May 27, we are also encouraged that the first meetings will be held in different and larger venues. In fact, for years the council has rotated its meeting place once per season to a different part of town, so these new meeting sites – often in town recreation buildings and the like – make up for the costs. remote meetings not held in 2020 or so far. year.
But we think it’s just as important that the city council eventually returns to meeting at City Hall, which is one of the oldest city halls in the country to be in permanent use. (Charleston was built as a bank several years before the city acquired it in 1818.) Yes, the council rooms might be a little tight at times, but they also contribute to the uniqueness of the city. The building’s continued use as the seat of city government confirms that the city center remains a part of a living city, not just a place for others to visit.
The trick will be to keep the best parts of the virtual meetings while coming back to an in-person meeting. An analysis by the city council clerk showed that more public comments were made per meeting since the arrival of COVID and that people could attend and participate by phone or on the internet. Keeping this ease of public accessibility should remain as high a priority as the safety of in-person meetings – which, in the short term, means requiring everyone to wear masks. And both priorities apply not only to city council meetings, but also to the city’s many councils and commissions.
When the pandemic hit, we wondered if online public meetings – especially those that involved public hearings – would work as well as face-to-face meetings; to its credit, the city has wisely taken steps to provide people – even those without computers – with options to participate. This has gone a long way in maintaining, and even boosting at times, the public participation that is so vital in helping board and council members make good decisions.
Yet, there is something about meeting face to face that enhances transparency, understanding, and trust. As more of us get vaccinated and infection rates decline, it’s time to start coming together like this again while allowing others to participate remotely if they wish.