When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered businesses and forced meetings of all shades to take place virtually, many people lamented the loss if in-person communication. Three years later, most of those meetings have returned to board rooms and meeting halls, but the vestiges of those early pandemic constraints remain.
Every opportunity for public comment at a La Plata County commission meeting begins with a rotely delivered set of instruction on how to raise a hand on Zoom. And county officials have no intention of changing that.
“There's no question in my mind that making (county meetings) accessible virtually has increased if not participation then at least attendance,” said county spokesman Ted Holteen. “If someone can just flick it on while they're multitasking, whether they're at home, whether they're at work, they can sit there and watch as opposed to having to drive – I mean, that's just common sense.”
Holteen said there was never an official decision to continue allowing virtual participation – but that it never made any sense to stop, given the benefits it brings and relatively low costs associated with the practice.
It is difficult to track how attendance and the number of public comments may have changed in recent years given that controversial issues tend to drive up public attendance and the number of comments more than anything else.
While the city of Durango reported an 88% increase in 2022 from the previous year in the number of views on videos uploaded to the city’s YouTube page, this could have been driven by the topics discussed.
Still, city and county officials say the use of streaming technology has been advantageous when it comes to both making civic engagement more accessible and lubricating the internal gears of government.
“It has definitely expanded our outreach and our ability to connect with the public judging by the number of attendees, judging by the number of emails that we received before and after,” said Tom Sluis, city spokesman. “I think our level of engagement has definitely increased across the board ever since we've gone to a hybrid format.”
For the county, the use of Zoom and other services enables residents to attend meetings without having to travel from the far reaches of the county to participate.
“If you live somewhere in that outlying area (and) you feel kind of out of touch with county government because it's based in Durango that's hard to combat,” Holteen said. “However, certainly virtual attendance has to be a really good option for folks like that if they're aware that it's there.”
Because Durango City Council meetings pertain only to Durango residents who don’t have to drive as far as a county resident in Bayfield or Hesperus, the impact of virtual meetings is blunted a bit.
However, councilors say that although meetings had been livestreamed prior to the pandemic, the continuation of hybrid meetings remains beneficial for transparency and accessibility.
Councilor Melissa Youssef said the system works well for people who need to multitask but want to have one ear in the meeting. But for Youssef, the biggest advantage has been the ability to leverage her time more effectively throughout the day.
“It allows us to attend, in some situations, meetings we wouldn't otherwise have been able to attend, which is great for the accessibility part as a councilor,” she said.
Holteen said hybrid meetings have had a similar impact on the county. Employees who are not required to be at a meeting but might benefit from listening in are able to do so without having to leave their offices, which may be several miles away. County employees regularly tune into virtual meetings by choice and are even called upon to contribute on occasion when deemed appropriate.
Durango Mayor Barbara Noseworthy and Holteen both noted that hybrid meetings conserve the time of presenters by not forcing them to wait in-person through the sometimes lengthy workings of local governments. Instead, presenters can quickly pop in and out when needed.
Despite the conveniences, everyone seems happy that meetings are once again taking place in person.
“As a counselor, I feel it is more effective when they're in person,” Youssef said. “I definitely notice the difference when someone is speaking at me and I'm looking at them and they're looking at me than when they're coming in over (the speaker) and in those cases, in City Council meetings, I don't even see their picture, so I'm just hearing them and sometimes it's muted. Sometimes I can't even hear very clearly. So it's much more difficult, I think, from the public participation perspective.”
Noseworthy echoed that sentiment and said she has continued to hold outdoor meetings with constituents throughout the pandemic for this very reason.
“I make a point if somebody wants to meet, I'll meet with them, typically outdoors,” Noseworthy said. “... But it's a very different meeting with one person or two people outside as opposed to meeting with 60 people in a room.”