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Boy, it sure seems that Staunton City Council doesn’t want your input

stauntonGovernment would seem to work better when leaders get to hear from citizens about how decisions impact their daily lives.

The conservative majority on Staunton City Council doesn’t seem to think so.

Earlier this month, a 4-3 vote by the City Council cut the chord, literally, on the phone line that had connected residents who wished to weigh in on live discussions.

This after the city had spent $200,000 to update the City Council chambers during the COVID-19 pandemic to allow the public body to meet remotely.

It’s understandable that with COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations down, with COVID-19 vaccinations on the increase, with the light at the end of the COVID tunnel getting ever closer every day, it’s time to begin taking steps toward getting back to normal, including with the conduct of City Council meetings.

But, that phone line was an innovation that should have life for years to come.

“We have the capability, we have the technology, we’ve spent the money,” said Brenda Mead, one of the three City Council members who voted to leave the previous meeting arrangements in place.

“I mean, that CARES Act money would have allowed us not just to respond to the issues related to the pandemic, but would have allowed us to expand community access to city council meetings. That access should be expanded to every single public meeting that this city, the city holds, whether it’s the planning commission or the Lewis Creek Watershed Advisory Committee, all of the things in between. The public should be able to simply tune in and be involved with those with those public meetings,” Mead said.

It does seem to stand to reason that the technology already in place should be more utilized across the board.

The last year has gotten us all used to being able to be present in meetings virtually.

“Think about the single mother, who has a couple of school-aged children at home, and who does not have the option of leaving at 7 or 7:30 and wading through a three-hour city council meeting, coming to our city council meeting until 9 or 10 o’clock at night, and then being able to provide her input at that moment in time. She can do that if she’s at home. I think about that,” Mead said.

One of the last phone calls of the phone call era, from the meeting in which City Council voted to kill the phone line, stands out to Mead.

“It was distressing to me, in the last city council meeting, when a woman who was clearly elderly called to make a comment at the City Council meeting, and as she was speaking, she suddenly stopped and asked, is this the last time I’m going to be able to call in my comments?” Mead said. “It just broke my heart, to hear to hear that kind of question. And the response she got was silence.

“I think that was eloquent. The silence was eloquent.”

Mayor Andrea Oakes, who voted with the majority, dismissed the concerns that the chord-cutting will stifle public input.

“Well, the elderly have been able to speak to us through coming to the council meetings in years past and now more than ever, with social media and email and phone calls. They’re still able to communicate with us,” Oakes said, according to a report in the News Leader.

Social media, email and phone calls, ostensibly before a meeting, after a meeting, not contemporaneous to a live discussion ahead of a vote on a City Council matter.

“It’s the ability of people to listen to and watch what is being said in a City Council meeting and provide contemporaneous response, not emailing members of city council who may or may not respond to their email, not making phone calls, which may not get answered or returned, but actually being able to speak at the meeting to issues that are raised during the meeting, and to hear the responses of other members of the city or other members of the public to what’s actually happening in a city council meeting,” Mead said.

“That has been taken away. There are all those other means of communication, but they are not the same as having the ability to respond immediately and vocally to what’s going on in a City Council meeting,” Mead said.

Story by Chris Graham

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