Like many working professionals, my career has existed solely on Zoom for the past three months. As someone who, in a normal year, travels constantly for work, Zoom has been a useful, temporary fix; it’s allowed me to hold client meetings in New Hampshire, lead webinars for partners in Saskatchewan and speak on panels at virtual conferences to tourism entities across the country. It’s odd how, in an era when the world feels so very disconnected, for a short time, platforms like Zoom brought us together.
Though I speak at meetings across the South as a consultant for numerous government entities, I’ve never actually attended a public meeting in my own hometown—until March, that is; virtually. Suddenly, this pandemic forced everyone to learn how to run their businesses—and governments—remotely, and I was able to tune into our local Board of Mayor and Aldermen (BOMA) meeting via Facebook streamed from Zoom.
And you know what? It worked. I began to understand some of the reasoning behind votes, was able to see how our tax dollars were being spent and learned firsthand how the small decisions our elected officials are asked to consider on a daily basis can dramatically impact our community.
Taking the time to watch and listen gave me a better understanding of how local government functions in Tullahoma and more respect for the dedication required in an elected official. There’s a different set of rules that apply to the exposure of public office, and while, sure, these folks choose to pursue this path, we often don’t have a good look into the inner workings because it requires an in-person visit and that takes our most precious of commodities: time.
Access to government is the hallmark of successful towns, but allowing the public easier access to decision-making via a front-row virtual seat also keeps those of us who live here accountable. Now that meetings are available online, we can’t complain that we didn’t know about a certain meeting or “would have attended but had work/church/family/sports commitments.” We can literally log online at an hour that suits us to review the operations of our elected government, and that’s a liberating feeling.
Logging on to the June 1 BOMA meeting, however, I was disappointed to find it had not been made available in real time via Zoom. Upon further research, I learned it’s because the governor’s executive order requiring that governments meet virtually throughout the pandemic had expired—though on May 22, Gov. Lee did extend Executive Order No. 38 through June 30, meaning city governments do have the option to continue virtual meetings—so the city no longer saw providing online access to meetings and documents as a requirement and appears to have plans to stop.
Rather than viewing access to public meetings through the internet as a temporary mandate from the governor, Tullahoma government needs to look at it through a different lens and make the move permanent.
We live in a town that should, and does occasionally, boast about innovation, fighter jets and gigabit internet, yet the very core and foundation of our government cannot seem to conquer the intricacies of a group video call. Surely, in a community that produces some of the most advanced technology on Earth to the highest levels of perfection can figure out how to translate that expertise to public office? Platforms like Zoom exists for this very purpose. Is it asking too much that our government takes the time to figure out how to make this a permanent change? I know I’m not alone in wanting to see this virtual approach continue.
Virtual gatherings will never replace the face-to-face feel of public meetings and interactions, but they serve a purpose that goes beyond the needs of this moment: They launch our city into the realm of the 21st century by establishing a foothold in the one place that connects us all—the internet.
As a communicator, consumer and advocate of online information, I kindly ask you, our city representatives, to move quickly to keep distribution platforms up-to-date and continue providing all public meetings online. We’ll all be better for it: you as public servants and us as responsible citizens.
A Tullahoma native, Kristin Luna has worked as a journalist and marketer for 20 years.