The atrium of the Legislative Office Building pre-pandemic. (CTNewsJunkie file) Credit: Christine Stuart photo

After a long winter and years of not having in-person legislative sessions at our State Capitol and municipal halls, it seems that with the pandemic nearing its end that Connecticut’s democracy is back. Or is it? It’s hard to tell and I’m more confused than I should be as a voter and taxpayer but also as someone who studies and teaches state and local government. In fact, I usually attend so many hearings, meetings and workshops that I genuinely miss being there in the room.  

Direct democracy is in New England’s DNA. In a number of municipalities, annual town meetings are a necessity and city hall hearings require constituents and the media to press public officials with probing questions. Voting is great but actual participation in the process is what makes democracy, well, democracy. It requires constituents to attend meetings and hearings so we have a direct say to our public officials. I often think we take this part for granted and many of our elected officials forget that constituent participation matters.  

Too many of us also get comfortable thinking that social media posts to our public officials cover political participation. They hardly do. And the pandemic allowed for online participation, but little (if any) in-person engagement while our State Capitol was shuttered for years. Meanwhile, municipal halls closed and reopened intermittently. 

Now we’re getting mixed messages about public in-person attendance from our state Senate to various town halls. I get that the pandemic hasn’t ended, but having our state House of Representatives open while having the upper chambers closed to the public is troubling. Meanwhile, legislative committee meetings are being held online this spring. 

Interestingly, some municipalities are allowing the public to return to legislative meetings. Bridgeport, for example, has its first in-person city council meeting this week. But – there will not be online access to the meetings. The technology is costly and the council chamber’s acoustics are not ideal for online discussions. 

Still, at least Bridgeport is back to meeting in person. I actually like to attend their meetings because they’re often dramatic; officials encourage participation with their open public speaking portion before the formal city council meeting. I often show up early to schmooze with officials, constituents, reporters, and gadflies. We exchange pleasantries and intel – elements that one can hardly do on Zoom. And I usually stay afterward to get additional information and network further with others. This is actual democracy, whether we never knew it or forgot that it existed because of the COVID era. 

Similarly, at the Legislative Office Building, I would spend a day visiting lawmakers’ offices and attend hearings. Exchanging information and networking with staff and officials is so critical. Something as simple as being in the LOB cafeteria – which just reopened this week – amid the buzz of lobbyists and reporters is much needed. This is where actual democracy takes place and being a part of it is what makes the legislative process work. 

As much as I miss in-person meetings, I hope state and local officials will seriously consider an online component to meetings and hearings. Not everyone can attend, especially many meetings that are held at night. As political scientist Frank Bryan reminds us in “Real Democracy,” many parents – especially mothers – are unable to attend public meetings due to child care coverage. 

This is the main reason why my colleague, Prof. Jodie Gil, and I urged officials to have an online option or hybrid model for public meetings. We surveyed and interviewed various municipal officials about online meetings for our “Open Budgetary Meetings Amid a Pandemic” journal article. Many officials agreed that having in-person and online meetings would be impactful. 

Hopefully as officials decide how to carry out state and local democracy, having both in-person and online meetings and hearings should be the norm in Connecticut. Now – more than ever – protecting and encouraging public participation is essential to New England democracy.

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

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