I’m a meeting guy. I have always been motivated to get together in a room with others and work to find collaborative solutions to the issues of the day.
Serving as Provincetown’s delegate to the Assembly these past seven years, I have observed that our meeting in Barnstable town makes us relatively accessible. None of us is much more than an hour away, and when there was a hearing on a topic of great interest we often had a decent number of people in the audience.
Then, of course, came the lockdown. It has been nearly two years since we started meeting virtually. Our hearing room is not large enough to safely accommodate a socially distanced crowd of any size.
This has required a paradigm shift. As in so many other areas of our lives, we will never again look the same way at how we do the things we “have to do” — notably, our work.
While I miss the camaraderie before and after meetings, I do not much miss the drive up Cape and back. At 94-plus miles, the twice-monthly round trips amounted to about 2,280 miles a year. I once calculated the distance to the Assembly from each delegate’s town hall. Collectively, with full attendance, we were putting about 875 miles on the road every two weeks, or about 21,000 miles per year. As we look for ways to reduce our carbon footprint, that’s not trivial. We know that auto emissions are the single largest contributor to the Cape’s greenhouse gas inventory.
Transitioning to virtual meetings has meant fewer absent delegates, says our county clerk, and increased participation by staff. A similar pattern has been noted in Provincetown by Assistant Town Manager David Gardner. Winter has always been a tough time to get a quorum for board meetings; remote or hybrid meetings have improved that.
But the more important issue is citizen engagement in governance. People have been more regularly “attending” meetings from home.
Barnstable County’s updated website encourages public participation, and we have had some remarkable turnouts on Zoom. In 2021, the issues with the greatest draw included climate change and the updated Cape Cod Commission planning framework, Covid updates, the Police Training Academy, PFAS contamination of water supplies, and the proposed machine-gun range.
Last August, when the Army National Guard floated plans for a new multi-purpose machine-gun range at the base in Bourne, more than 400 people attended the live-streamed virtual hearing required under federal law. It is highly unlikely that an in-person meeting would have drawn that many.
One cannot reflect on the undeniable pleasures of meeting in person without recognizing that, whatever precautions we take, contagion is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. A year ago, with vaccines on the horizon and no Omicron variant, I would not have imagined that we’d all still be meeting virtually much of the time. Now, this looks like the safest way to gather the necessary collective wisdom for decision-making.
I still believe in the power of people coming together in the same room to reach consensus on vexing problems. I hope we can resume regular in-person meetings. But we have learned that we can and should carry out much, if not most, of our business in virtual or hybrid sessions.
Now, if I can just find my car keys…
Brian O’Malley, M.D., is Provincetown’s elected delegate to the Barnstable County Assembly. Write him at [email protected].