From: Jessica Schulz
I would like to thank Winona City Council representative Eileen Moeller for advocating that City Council and (some) commission meetings should not only remain virtually accessible, but that public comments should, as well (June 21 council meeting). Accessibility needs do not end with the reinstatement of in-person meetings, they just become easier to ignore. Council member Moeller, and to a lesser extent council member Borzyskowski, seem to be the only representatives advocating for the involvement of all constituents.
Council members Young and Alexander suggested that in-person meetings bring more accountability; however, this is an outdated understanding of accountability. Often espoused by those of us born before the tech booms, the idea that virtual community is less accountable, honest, or engaged (as suggested by several board members) dismisses the very real participation, access, and community building of virtual dialogue, exposes archaic notions of accountability, and reveals a generation that refuses to adapt. Young’s need to “sit next to” someone or “sit across the room from them” is spoken with all the privilege of someone who has always had access to those rooms, and whose identities and social status likely help him feel confident and safe to sit next to people in these rooms. It would behoove Young to step back and imagine a constituent’s life that does not provide these privileges. Virtual engagement, including public comments, in public meetings opens up dialogue with communities that have been historically excluded.
Alexander’s statement that if something is important enough someone will show up in-person is extremely problematic, and works to silence individuals, especially those of us without transportation or who have work, family, school, or life obligations that do not allow meeting attendance in-person. To suggest that people who cannot attend a single in-person meeting care less about something reeks of social privilege, and the irony that Alexander’s comments were made virtually while most of the council was in-person should not be lost on us.
Returning to normal was also referenced several times in this meeting, as a reason to mandate in-person comments. I ask the committee to reflect on what normal they are referring to. Why would we dismiss what we have learned, that virtual meetings can increase participation and civic involvement, to return to an outdated mode of organizing that benefits a small and select few? The Winona City Council should move towards the “Next Normal” and embrace virtual constituent involvement at every City Council and commission meeting, to increase participation and community representation. The concerns for funding a position to oversee virtual participation during meetings was made clear. Also clear was that no attempt was made to imagine what this position(s) could be or what it would cost — the assumption was that whatever the cost, it was too much. The City Council should be invested in hearing from all voices in Winona, and should revisit this issue from a place of, how can we make this work.