Governments in Island County are slipping into the “virtual” age, allowing elected officials to participate in official meetings from afar.
The Port of South Whidbey is the latest example, although its technology was virtually prehistoric — a telephone. After brief confusion caused by a French-speaking recorded message, port officials managed to connect with Commissioner Chris Jerome in a Montreal, Canada, hotel, and he fully participated. The only thing he missed out on was the Chinese dinner the other commissioners and port staff shared before the regular meeting began.
Oak Harbor allows virtual meeting attendance by phone or Skype, the computer program that lets users see one another. Using Skype, an elected official can “attend” a meeting from thousands of miles away. The public can see only the talking head, so there’s no real reason to even get dressed (please don’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance).
In Langley, a “remote meeting” ordinance is on the books, but has not yet been tested. The main goal is to allow the public to view the proceedings at City Hall, but it too would allow virtual participation by city council members.
This isn’t much of an issue at many meetings in which few, if any, members of the public attend. But controversies do arise. Langley’s council chambers have recently been filled by issues with a past mayor and a noisy pub. Will the public be satisfied speaking to elected officials whose only presence is on a telephone or staring out of a computer screen?
One can be wary of remote representation without being called a Luddite — a successor to the movement in England that tried and failed to stop progress in the weaving mills. We have no intention of smashing telephones or computer screens. But really, shouldn’t elected officials have to be in the district in which they were elected when making decisions? Doesn’t participating from afar insulate officials from the public? An angry crowd doesn’t throw much fear into someone sitting on the other side of the continent.
In short, modern technology is great for increasing public participation in government. Let the folks view what’s going on from home, on their TV or computer screens. But keep remote participate by elected officials to a minimum, or ban it altogether. Elected officials should always have to directly face the people who elected them when making decisions.