I never thought I’d say this, but I miss going to public meetings.
Like all of us, I miss the valley’s big events, live performances and community gatherings. They are social engagements that can’t be “virtually” replicated. Their absence has created a rip in the community’s social fabric that will take time and determination to mend.
I also miss covering high school sports, even when it required standing around in the rain and/or cold to watch outdoor competition. Prep sports provide another link that holds us together in ways that other events do not.
But council and board meetings? For most people who aren’t specifically interested in something on a government entity’s agenda, public meetings are boring yet necessary time taken out of their lives.
I’m not one of those people.
Early in my professional career, I covered small rural towns for a sizable regional daily newspaper, the Eugene (Oregon) Register-Guard. I lived and worked in a home-based office in Cottage Grove, and covered the town councils and school boards in that town and others like Drain, Elkton, Oak Ridge and Yoncalla (I’m not making those up). I spent a lot of nights driving many miles of back roads to be the only press representative — and often the only public representative — in tiny town halls or school gyms converted to board meeting rooms. I got to know how small communities work (or don’t) by sitting in those rooms and interacting with council and board members, superintendents, mayors, administrative staff and police chiefs.
Later, when I moved back to the “main office,” I covered the City of Eugene and Lane County government. Larger organizations, but the approach was the same: be there, observe, talk to people. My next career move took me to the Twin Cities, where I was a reporter in a suburban bureau for the Minneapolis Star covering — you guessed it — towns and school districts. When I was moved to the downtown Minneapolis office, I was assigned to cover Hennepin County government.
After that, I moved into the editing echelons, and for the next 20-plus years, my reporting days were mostly behind me — until I moved to the valley in 2011 after purchasing this newspaper. Coming to the Methow brought me back full circle to my community news reporting roots, and I figured out pretty quickly that I would need to contribute copy to the paper each week. Turns out I hadn’t forgotten how. It really is like riding a bike again — muscle memory kicks in.
The reporter part of my job has, for the past several years, required me to attend town council meetings in Winthrop and, less often, Twisp. Some things don’t change: the rooms are small and sometimes crowded, and absent some controversy the considerations and actions are mainly routine.
They are nonetheless important. Attending the meetings has helped me get to know more people and learn about the community’s inner workings, its history, its distinct personality. I could casually interact with board, council or staff before and after the meetings. For a reporter, continuity of coverage means you have a better grasp of ongoing issues, which makes it easier to write the story.
The coronavirus changed all that, and COVID protocols have ruled out gathering in even small groups. Governments adapted fairly quickly to provide some kind of online access to public agency meetings. I appreciate that and “attend” the Twisp and Winthrop council meetings as a disembodied observer. But it’s not the same.
For one thing, while public participation is neither prohibited nor discouraged, it has fallen off dramatically in both towns. If someone had something to say to the council, they could show up in person and say it. Now, public comments are submitted to the Town of Twisp in written form and read by staff at council meetings. In Winthrop, you can still “appear” via Zoom — if you have access and know-how to make the program work for you. Either way, it’s cumbersome and probably off-putting to many folks.
Being there in person is a meaningful commitment — making the effort, looking people in the eye, physically participating in representative government. It’s real-time citizenship. We’ve lost much of that, and I think it’s a problem. Elected and appointed board members, and administrative staff, are less accessible (not their fault, just a result of the situation). People are likely to feel more disconnected from those who represent them and the institutions they serve. I know I do.
It’s not always convenient to get to a council or board meeting, but when I can again, I will. Maybe I’ll see you there.