Democracy by video: Not so bad!
By Bobby Bryant
The public’s right to know what happens at local-government meetings is surviving the COVID-19 pandemic, but it hasn’t been easy. Or has it? The governing bodies in Darlington County – the school board, County Council, Darlington City Council, Hartsville City Council, Lamar Town Council and Society Hill Town Council – have coped with COVID in different ways at different times. Over the past COVID-crippled year, various governments have tried meeting entirely from home via computer, meeting in person but excluding the media and public, meeting in person and allowing in limited numbers of press and public, and other methods. Our governments have been squeezed between two priorities: 1. Are we keeping the public safe? 2. Are we making sure they know what’s happening in our meetings? Most governments have had to rely heavily on the Internet to keep those two goals more or less in balance. ZOOM has let councils meet totally from home, and still allow the public to tune in. Web sites and Facebook pages have served as forums for live-streaming meetings. (On Facebook, you can not only watch your local-government meetings from home, you can comment, ask questions and even say hi to friends at the same time.) In some ways, democracy by video has been an improvement over democracy in person. You don’t have to sit on those buttocks-bruising wooden benches in the courtroom where Darlington City Council meets. You don’t have to strain to hear what school board members are saying if you’re far from their desks. You don’t have to stand in the hall during executive sessions; you can watch TV until the board or council returns to live video. By now, I’m sure most members of the public who like to follow, in real time, what a board or council is doing are probably hearing a little voice in their head: “Yeah, I’m not there in person, but this video stuff is really not bad. And I can’t get COVID from this.” Here’s how some of our governments are handling COVID caution and public access right now: — Darlington County Council is meeting in person, but socially distanced and masked. The public and press are excluded because of COVID risks. But all council meetings are live-streamed on Facebook, and archived on the county’s website pretty fast so you can catch them if you missed the live performance. — Darlington City Council is meeting in person, also socially distanced and masked (for the most part). The public is currently excluded because of COVID, but the media can attend. (In a typical council meeting, the media consist of the News & Press and government watchdog Anna DeWitt, who shoots videos of council meetings and posts them to her Facebook page.) All council meetings are live-streamed on the Internet. (An aside: City Council should get extra credit for the months they met on the basketball court at Harmon Baldwin Gym in an effort to let in as much of the public as possible, but still maintain a 6-foot social distance. (City staff set up dozens of folding chairs and spread them out on the court. Members of the public were required to wear masks and to have their temperature checked. The sound system made it tough to hear what some council members were saying, but it was still a noble effort.) — The county school board is meeting in person, also socially distanced and masked. The public and press have lately been excluded because of COVID, but the school district offered limited media access at the Feb. 8 board meeting. All school-board meetings are live-streamed on Facebook, and the commentary posts from the public are usually valuable footnotes to the meetings. Questions from the public are typically answered live by the school district’s communications staff. — Hartsville City Council has been meeting from home by video via ZOOM. All meetings are live-streamed on the city’s YouTube page.