While appearing on Good Morning America, White House Coronavirus Task Force Advisor Deborah Birx recently said: “We’re concerned right now about the Philadelphia area.” Vice President Pence called Governor Tom Wolf to say the federal government planned to elevate Pennsylvania to the top of the priority list for some of the scarce supply of personal protective equipment. As the pandemic continues and local governments increasingly serve as the federal system’s first line of defense, they need to establish clear priorities in addressing the implications and supporting the diverse needs of our communities in distress.
The pandemic influenced many municipalities to devote time and resources toward stringent public health and safety efforts, suspending projects and personnel considered non-essential. Local government administrators throughout the region are spending every spare moment crunching the numbers to understand and plan for the forthcoming economic devastation.
Indeed, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney already announced plans to present a new budget to City Council on May 1, anticipating catastrophic services cuts “the likes of which have never been needed.” This week, the Pennsylvania legislature convened an emergency session to provide an immediate cash infusion to state agencies struggling to keep pace with the demand for medical and financial support services.
Fighting a virulent pathogen has changed the world, but when did it turn democratically elected council members into arbiters of free speech?
Yet the recently elected leadership of Upper Darby Township Council appears undeterred by the pandemic’s fiscal devastation and continues to plod along with business as usual. The newly installed legislature of Pennsylvania’s sixth largest municipality, led by Council President Laura Wentz, recently expended precious taxpayer resources to litigate the most mundane, non-urgent matters, such as updated fee schedules for code enforcement for hours on end online, in lieu of the standard public hearings at the municipal building. Wentz initiated a virtual council meeting on April 1 at 7 p.m. Unbelievably, it droned on until shortly after 1:30 a.m.
Prior to the ban on gatherings during the pandemic, in an unorthodox resolution, Upper Darby Council tightened up restrictions on the public for “questioning” or “debating with” members of council during public meetings. This resolution’s dubious relationship with the First Amendment notwithstanding, the subsequent shift to a virtual governance model managed to further exacerbate the trampling of citizens’ rights to participatory democracy by relegating public comment to a selective reading of pre-screened emails. Fighting a virulent pathogen has changed the world, but when did it turn democratically elected council members into arbiters of free speech?
According to local economist Joel Naroff, the eventual unemployment rate could exceed 20%. He cited the University of Michigan’s Current Conditions Index finding that we must prepare for a longer and deeper recession.
Instead of buckling down, last week, the Upper Darby Township Council approved a controversial school district land development plan in a meeting conducted exclusively online. The school district’s massive and expensive capital improvement plans had been largely panned by already overburdened taxpayers prior to the pandemic-induced recession. Yet, an affirmative vote to proceed with the district’s most recent proposal was pushed through via Facebook Live shortly after 1 a.m.. Even those who managed to stay awake until the bitter end of Wentz’s online gabfest could not voice their concerns due to the muzzle on challenging council members, ban on raising concerns deemed redundant, or a simple lack of functional alternatives given the technological limitations.
When our recently robust economy descends into the fiscal abyss, citizens rightly demand that local government clarify its focus. Taxpayers should not add to their current worries that local legislators will utilize subterfuge to fast-track non-urgent policy matters.
We know that COVID-19 presents a clear threat to our physical well-being. We must not allow it to also compromise our civic well-being.
Irrespective of ideological disposition, there should be broad consensus that any vote of local consequence that occurs after 1 a.m. via technology that limits public participation fails to meet the most basic standards of transparency and due process. Their outcomes should be afforded legitimacy accordingly.
Residents affected by school district plans range from seniors living on fixed incomes who cannot afford the projected property tax increases, to families with small children whose educations are at stake, and neighbors whose lives will be upended by the construction. Upper Darby’s council president should have arranged an extension with the School District on the land development vote until after this public health crisis ends. Irrespective of ideological disposition, there should be broad consensus that any vote of local consequence that occurs after 1 a.m. via technology that limits public participation fails to meet the most basic standards of transparency and due process. Their outcomes should be afforded legitimacy accordingly.
In a democracy, process matters. While far from exclusive to Upper Darby Township Council, these experiments in virtual governance demonstrate that video chats may be the perfect anecdote for alleviating the personal pain of social distancing, but fall painfully short of ensuring the health of our democracy.
Terry Tracy is Co-Founder & CEO of Broad + Liberty, Inc. firstname.lastname@example.org