Fascinating development in the way Manhattan City Commission meetings will be conducted in the post-coronavirus era.
It’ll take me a minute to get to why it’s interesting, so bear with me for a couple of background paragraphs.
When the pandemic hit, government meetings suddenly became problematic. Meetings still had to occur to run the nuts-and-bolts of local government, but people weren’t supposed to gather together physically. Meanwhile the law rightfully says that government business has to be conducted in meetings open to the public.
The solution was to stream the meetings online, and to allow for public comment through online means. It was a reasonable work-around.
And in many ways, you could consider it an improvement. People ought to be able to interact with their government in any way possible, right? They shouldn’t have to trudge down to City Hall on a Tuesday night just to stand up in front of a microphone and have their say. Right?
Well, sure. Nobody is against openness and involvement. It’s just like putting government meetings on TV, or online. Can’t really argue against it.
Except, as a practical matter, that means that government meetings become television shows. There’s grandstanding, and malarkey, that would not otherwise happen. The videocamera changes things. And so does the instantaneous chat-room function.
Want evidence? In the past few weeks, the City Commission’s online public-comment section during meetings has been blown up by spammers launching into conspiracy-theory goofiness about NBAF. As you probably know, that’s the big federal lab being built here to handle nasty animal diseases, some of which could jump to humans. Some podcasters have goosed the discredited theory that the coronavirus leaked from a Chinese lab, and have prodded their listeners or readers to blast the commission meetings here with objections on the theory that NBAF could set loose a plague right in the nation’s heartland.
I can’t speculate on the motives of the podcasters, but the reality is that local, state and federal leaders have been mindful of safety from the get-go. Nothing on Earth is ever completely fail-safe; we have a nuclear reactor on campus here, and we all get in these deadly machines every day to drive to work. The only purpose served by the spamming is to further goose the conspiracy theories, and to build the audience of the podcasters.
It’s my understanding that the city government planned from the outset to dial back the online public-comment capacity after the pandemic restrictions were lifted.
And so it’s not that the spamming forced them to shut it down. People can still contact commissioners through e-mail, snail mail, phone, fax, carrier pigeon or probably Snapchat.
All I’m saying is that the experiment with live online commenting during meetings created enough problems that nobody had any enthusiasm about continuing it.