A smartphone could become a busy resident’s shortcut around traffic jams, parking fees and other reasons not to attend Montgomery County government meetings.
County Council member George Leventhal this week pitched his colleagues the idea of inviting residents to share public testimony over FaceTime, Skype or Google Hangouts. Elected leaders often express dismay at sparse attendance for important government meetings, and Leventhal said using video chat applications would make it possible for residents to participate without slogging to the council headquarters in Rockville.
“I’ve felt for a long time that people who make their way to Rockville are not always representative of all the constituents who we work for and that we need to do more to make it easier for working people to communicate with us,” Leventhal said Wednesday.
Leventhal laid out his proposal in a Monday memorandum to fellow council members. In a phone interview, he said he doesn’t believe pulling it off would cost the county any extra money, since the council meeting spaces are already fitted with the necessary audiovisual equipment. Making the change would require an affirmative council vote, he said.
Working to make county govt more accessible by streaming Council mtgs on YouTube & allowing residents to provide public testimony remotely. pic.twitter.com/mRzPqH9RQT
— George Leventhal (@georgeleventhal) June 6, 2017
Council President Roger Berliner said he’s not sure if Leventhal’s idea will come up for discussion when the group meets June 13.
However, he also recognizes the problem of low resident turnout at county hearings.
“It’s been a constant theme … that we need to do more to reach people that are not connected to our county political apparatus. People who are as affected by the decisions we make as anyone else but simply by virtue of their lives, they’re not engaged,” he said.
He said the council has taken steps to involve residents, including holding more community meetings and making sure translation services are available.
Leventhal also said he appreciates the council’s efforts. While he said he welcomes all input, residents who show up at meetings tend to be older and white. He said he’d like to hear more from underrepresented groups.
“I’ve always believed that council members respond to the people we see and hear,” he said.
His memorandum suggests that residents could log onto video chat applications to submit real-time or pre-recorded testimony. Leventhal said he’s unaware of any other local government that has experimented with this approach to receiving public comment. Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, and a researcher with the Maryland Municipal League said they didn’t know of any officials who have tried it.
In his memorandum, Leventhal also suggested simulcasting meetings over YouTube in addition to broadcasting them on the council website. That way, residents could sign up for email notifications that the council is broadcasting live and access recordings immediately after a meeting ends, his memo points out.
Leventhal said the cities of Takoma Park, Gaithersburg and Rockville stream council meetings on YouTube.