Virtual planning board meetings in Princeton border on being undemocratic

To the Editor:

I “attended” the two Master Plan sessions of the Princeton Planning Board, and though it was nice to invisibly gobble a snack during the Zoom session, I found it very much wanting and bordering on undemocratic – in its elimination of the live element.  Others felt frustrated by this, too.

With a Zoom-only format, there’s no way to “take the temperature” of the room and no way to communicate approval or disapproval of what members of the public say.  Equally bad, you can’t know who’s there, and you can’t interact with them afterward.  The Covid pandemic has been over for a while now, and our public meetings should be true meetings of the public again.  

Princeton Council, the governing body of this town, should promptly require that the Planning Board’s meetings be held in a hybrid format – that is, both in person and via Zoom. That way, those who can’t attend in person might still virtually join the meeting. It is a little more challenging, but with competent technical assistance, it is perfectly feasible and will be well worth it.  The council does hybrid meetings; the Planning Board ought to, too.

Citizens really need to be able to interact with one another at a public meeting, to see who shows up, to participate in their democracy in ways that are not so controlled and sterile these encounters are invaluable.  Townspeople and their public servants need to be able to look each other in the eye and stand in each other’s presence.  

Every election year, candidates routinely promise greater transparency and openness in government and claim that they will embrace the participation of the citizenry.  This is the Council’s chance to do just that.

Ronald Berlin
Jefferson Road

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2 Comments

  1. I, too, want to agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Berlin. Conducting the town’s business exclusively by remote webinar does border on undemocratic for the very reasons he outlines. The public doesn’t know in real time who else is in attendance. It is impossible to speak to neighbors, to offer support, or to continue a conversations elsewhere. It seems that the longer the meetings are conducted exclusively online, the more disengaged the members become from the community. I find it hard to imagine that a roomful of people would have been told to “Calm down,” had the Master Plan meetings had an in-person component. It is ironic that while towns are complaining about the administrative burden created by OPRA, they are simultaneously adding to the burden because the only way to know who attended a Planning Board meeting is through an OPRA request. Creating more administrative burden for concerned citizens dampens enthusiasm, reduces transparency, and discourages dissent — all counter to a robust democracy.