Public sector shift to digital platforms might linger post-COVID in Garfield County
Still, remote participation doesn’t replace benefits of face-to-face, some officials say
Some of the virtual ways of doing the public’s business might live on beyond the pandemic, but probably not anywhere close to the same degree as during the past year, local government and schools officials tend to agree.
“Right now, the only thing we’re talking about is how we can’t wait until we can meet in person again,” said Roaring Fork Schools Superintendent Rob Stein.
Same for Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes.
“We, as city councilors, I think are much more comfortable participating with each other, and we all want to get back to meeting in person,” Godes said.
Godes did note, however, that a proposal allowing city council members to participate in meetings remotely if they’re away on business, which was rejected previously, might now pass given the experience of the past year.
“The feeling before is that we have to be in the room, face to face, in order to participate,” Godes said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has served as a lesson for local government entities in how to be more efficient and inclusive with various online platforms.
Last year at this time, public entities and businesses alike were in the midst of a hasty migration to platforms such as Zoom, Google Meets and Cisco Webex to conduct meetings, court hearings, staff trainings, conferences and, in the case of schools, classes themselves, due to the public health restrictions on live gatherings.
As those restrictions have slowly eased, a big question is how much of the virtual world will remain into the future.
It’s very likely that some of the digital platforms people have gotten used to over the last year will become a regular way of life.
Others, not so much. Stein noted that being part of a public institution, especially education, is about building relationships and learning how to work together effectively as a team.
“That just doesn’t happen in Zoom,” Stein said.
He reflected on an education conference that he looks forward to every year that was conducted virtually in place of the in-person event.
“What I missed was the dinner conversation, which is where a lot of that exchange of ideas happens,” he said. “In the same way, I think that also happens between teachers and kids.
“We always hear about how technology is revolutionizing education, but my experience is that rarely does technology truly transform what we’re doing,” Stein said.
At the same time, if an hour-long staff meeting can be attended virtually without someone having to drive from Basalt to Glenwood Springs, or a teacher home visit could be done via video, it makes sense from an efficiency and cost standpoint, he said.
Even before the pandemic hit, the school district had been exploring ways to livestream meetings and other events as a way to encourage more public engagement.
Most local city and town councils, as well as the Garfield County Commission, were already web-streaming their meetings long before the pandemic.
But the switch to video meetings, where even elected officials and staff were participating remotely, introduced the element of allowing the public to offer their comments from afar.
Godes said he’s not sure that’s something he wants to see continue on.
“I don’t mind having a presenter or consultant do it that way, because it’s a lot cheaper than flying them out here or having them drive,” Godes said.
As far as allowing people to tune into City Council meetings remotely and expect to comment, though, “I have mixed feelings about that,” he said.
He pointed to a recent meeting regarding the municipal airport, where about half the people who commented were Glenwood residents and the other half were from outside the area, and even from out of state.
“There’s something to be said for having people take the time to come to a meeting and comment,” he said. “It shows that they care enough about the issue to do that.”
That doesn’t preclude people from sending emails, leaving phone messages or even writing a paper letter to give to elected officials on a topic, which still gets entered as part of the official record, Godes noted.
“I think we’re all tired of Zoom,” Garfield County Board of Commissioners Chairman John Martin said.
“It may be something to consider,” he said of allowing the public to continue listening in and commenting remotely. “But I like to see that interaction with people, and facial expressions, body language — those kinds of things. It’s not so one-dimensional.”
Carbondale Town Manager Jay Harrington said the town is planning to take advantage of some of the lessons learned about conducting town business during COVID-19.
“We anticipate some level of remote work remaining, although most of our staff needs to be on-site because of the nature of their work,” he said. “Remote trainings will continue when feasible.
As for town council meetings, “We have some work to better dial hybrid meetings in, so that’s a work in process.
“The one positive of the COVID experience is that we have become more comfortable with the digital tools available, and we will need to find the right balance between in-person and digital meetings and public outreach,” Harrington said.
Carbondale Mayor Dan Richardson also sits on the inter-governmental Roaring Fork Transportation Authority board. He said that’s one entity that, given its large geographic reach, might benefit from continuing with virtual meetings.
“While we haven’t discussed it, I find it difficult to imagine RFTA, or any public entity, not maintaining some level of remote access to meetings for the foreseeable future,” Richardson said.
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