Local governments in Southern Indiana are again reassessing in-person operations amid a record-breaking surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations caused by the omicron variant.
Many Hoosier governing bodies streamed meetings online for people who did not feel comfortable attending in person earlier in the pandemic. But not all have continued to do so, which has prompted some criticism from the community and local leaders.
“This is the money of the taxpayers, and they should be afforded every opportunity to be able to attend meetings and also be aware of how things are being done,” said New Albany City Council member Josh Turner. “And this is just a step — really an easy step and a low-cost step — to engage the public.”
Of the three cities in Clark and Floyd counties, New Albany is the only one not currently offering any virtual opportunities for its government meetings.
The New Albany City Council canceled meetings at the onset of the pandemic, but eventually began to host them on Zoom. The council and other city boards transitioned back to in-person services in recent months. No public meeting notice has included a Zoom link since Oct. 28.
Turner uses his personal equipment to stream meetings on his Facebook account. He said New Albany’s new City Hall has the technology to broadcast, but it hasn’t been used.
Turner said streaming should be standard practice, even when there’s not a pandemic.
“Everyone should have the ability to partake in a meeting, whether it’s from the comfort of their home on video or in person,” he said. “We have people that have disabilities, and it’s hard enough to get to a physical meeting. So throw in inclement weather on top of that, you’re not going to be able to get someone out here out in the snow to attend a meeting.”
Turner planned to discuss streaming capabilities at Thursdays’ New Albany City Council meeting, but it was canceled due to snow.
New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan and City Council President Greg Phipps did not respond to requests for comment.
Other Southern Indiana cities have continued to stream meetings throughout the pandemic. This week, Jeffersonville officials took to social media to remind residents that all meetings can be watched online at CityOfJeff.net.
The city’s website allows residents to watch live meetings, but there is no way for them to interact virtually. Recordings of past meetings are also posted on the website.
Jeffersonville Mayor Mike Moore said technology has come a long way in recent decades, and it’s time for local governments to take advantage of its potential.
“I grew up not trusting politicians, so to me, this just kind of fits right into our way of thinking,” Moore said. “You may not like everything I do, but I’m not ashamed to tell you what I think or show you what I’m going to do. Even when COVID has disappeared, or we’ve dealt with it and we’ve moved on, I don’t see any reason why you wouldn’t be able to continue to still watch meetings in Jeff online. It’s here to stay. I’m not taking it down.”
Charlestown Mayor Treva Hodges said one of her goals upon taking office in January 2020 was to make meetings more accessible. The city has since streamed all of its meetings on Facebook during the pandemic. Like in Jeffersonville, the stream only allows people to view the meeting, but residents can email public comments to the mayor’s office.
The Charlestown City Council shifted back to a hybrid meeting model this week, allowing all members to attend virtually. Along with preventing transmission of COVID-19, Hodges said streaming gives residents a new way to interact with local government, which promotes accountability and civic engagement.
“Everything is right there in the open, and there’s a recorded, documented source that anybody can go look at and hear word-for-word what comes out of our mouths,” she said. “Hopefully, it leads to a level of truth-seeking for folks.”
Floyd County Government meetings are streamed on its website. Clark County has stopped broadcasting its meetings.
The Town of Clarksville has never streamed its meetings, but audio feeds can be listened to over the phone.
John Boyle is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. John’s coverage of Southern Indiana is funded, in part, by the Caesars Foundation of Floyd County, Community Foundation of Southern Indiana and Samtec, Inc.