Editorial | Keep public meetings on big projects virtual

The debate over the proposed conversion of a Morrissey Boulevard hotel into supportive housing has generated a fierce debate over the merits of the project itself. But it has also fueled a back-and-forth over the city’s continued use of virtual Zoom meetings to engage the public in oversight of large projects and other planning initiatives.

Critics say that the pandemic-era switch over to virtual meetings should now revert to in-person gatherings where, they argue, a more robust discussion is possible. But others have made the point that the virtual model allows for broader access and participation for people who might otherwise find it challenging to get to an in-person meeting.

It’s true that some of the dynamics of a pre-pandemic public forums are missing from the virtual process. It’s harder, for example, to strike up a sidebar conversation with other attendees or to pick up unrelated nuggets of neighborhood news and insights. And there’s a camaraderie that can come from encountering neighbors in the flesh and joining together in a common cause.

But there has long been a downside to in-person meetings that must be acknowledged: They can get nasty, disruptive, even intimidating when one side or another seeks to dominate the proceedings and shout down alternate views. That’s less of a problem in the virtual setting when moderators can exercise more control over microphones and move through a discussion at a quicker pace, allowing for more viewpoints to be shared.

And, of course, let’s not forget that even though many of us feel very comfortable attending gatherings, there are plenty of neighbors who are apprehensive due to valid concerns about public health, including Covid, flu and other illnesses that continue to stalk our ranks.

Importantly – as evidenced by the review of the 900 Morrissey proposal – it creates a record of the meeting that can be viewed by people who could not make the initial meeting, but who want to get a full picture of the issues at stake and the arguments on all sides. Then, they too can make an informed comment online or via email or letter to support their chosen position on the matter.

The convenience of Zoom meetings has become increasingly important in the Dorchester context because of the frequency of large project reviews directed by the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA). In some instances over the last calendar year, there have been multiple BPDA meetings on the same night, and certainly in the same week, as the focus of growth and new buildings shifts ever-so-clearly in our direction. Add in other smaller project reviews, civic association meetings, and longer-range planning efforts like the mammoth Dorchester Bay City effort, and that’s a lot to ask of neighbors who care not just about a building project on their immediate block, but also about long-range planning on things like coastal resiliency, adding center bus lanes on Blue Hill Avenue, or rebuilding Morrissey Boulevard.

Dorchester is best served by expanding our universe of engaged residents and stakeholders and giving them the opportunity to be heard on pressing matters under City Hall review. There’s still ample opportunity to gather in groups large and small at a more granular level, like a crime watch or civic group. But, for the purposes of getting a full read of public sentiment and — hopefully, consensus— the Zoom meeting should become a permanent tool in municipal government’s toolbox.

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