Attend council meetings from your couch? We’ve talked about open government and getting the message to our constituents, but who would have ever thought it would become a reality not only to watch, but also to participate in a city council meeting from the comfort of your home?
Social distancing has significantly changed how we communicate with one another in ways we didn’t think possible, and it may be for the better.
During the pandemic, we realized the need to find a way, and quickly, for the safe, contactless meetings needed to run city government. In March, I had my first virtual TV interview wearing cozy slippers from my home office, and I did radio interviews from my couch. There are no barriers to getting the message out. The pandemic kept us apart in distance, but it brought us even closer at the same time.
Not too long ago, a Girl Scout troop in Kansas City asked if I would join them for one of their meetings during a time when they were staying at home. In the pre-COVID world, they would not have reached out to Missouri’s capital city mayor to be their guest. But the barriers created by the pandemic opened new opportunities for learning and connecting.
Since March, I’ve barely been out of Jefferson City. However, having these opportunities to visit with people virtually from around the state have been rewarding. I’ve been able to meet friends who otherwise would not have a firsthand look at our city government. Even locals connected virtually during the pandemic — with church and faith leaders, rotary clubs, NAACP members, and weekly meetings for people to connect live online to learn all about #JCMO topics of interest. For a short while, the Jefferson City Chamber of Commerce also began hosting their Friday Coffees each week with more participants than ever. On May 8, the meeting maxed out the Zoom limit of 100 people, and nearly 20 people were sent a copy of the meeting because there wasn’t room to join.
I never thought we’d make history having our new council members, Hank Vogt and Mike Lester, sworn in virtually. City council met remotely for three months. We continued to conduct city business, complete with public input, either by video or phone. Now that we’re meeting in person (with added distancing and masks), we have retained the option for people to phone in if they prefer to participate remotely. Although we’ve streamed our city council meetings online for years, the pandemic has made us realize that it is time to make some needed changes and updates to the technology we’ve been using. Our current system is a bit outdated, and we want to be sure that the public can access, view, and participate in our meetings, pandemic or not. We’re currently exploring options to make it easier and better to tune in.
Technology had opened the doors of local government even before the pandemic. Jefferson City’s Human Relations Commission’s Facebook page hosted a speaker series addressing topics including living with disabilities in Jefferson City and fair housing. Their most recent, the #StrongerThroughDiversity series, will be their first to be broadcast virtually on their Facebook page. Now anyone can view, even beyond our city limits! The City of Jefferson also has a Facebook page with input from the Jefferson City Cultural Arts Commission, the Cultural Arts Foundation, and JC Parks for a Portals of History walking tour app that people can use on their smartphones.
Wonder what’s ahead for the future? Unfortunately, Oktoberfest in Old Munichburg has already been canceled, and the trip to our partnership city, Münchberg, originally planned for this fall, has been postponed. In its place, we are thinking a virtual Oktoberfest may be in order. We can dress in our finest German lederhosen and dirndls — in fact, if it’s virtual, then everyone in Jefferson City is invited to raise a glass together to toast (prost!) our friends around the world.