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COURIER L 14 IFE, DECEMBER 25-31, 2020
The new age
Community boards see sizable jump
in attendance after going virtual
A virtual meeting hosted by Brooklyn Community Board 6 in October. File photo
BY JESSICA PARKS
As residents huddle indoors amid
the pandemic, Brooklynites have taken
to civic engagement in record numbers,
attending virtual meetings of their local
community boards like never before,
according to borough civic gurus.
“We saw community board meetings
go from what would normally be,
maybe, 100 people in a room, to consistently
a couple-hundred people coming
to full board meetings,” said Noel Hidalgo,
executive director of BetaNYC,
which supported a number of boards
in their transition online.
The city’s 59 community boards,
including 18 in Brooklyn, which host
neighborhood meetings and cast advisory
votes to the city on a wide array of
important topics, began hosting their
forums on video platforms like WebEx
and Zoom in March, as the pandemic
began to ramp up in New York City,
canceling all in-person meetings.
The transition to online sessions
has been a boon for meeting participation
— including southern Brooklyn’s
Community Board 15, which reported
nearly-perfect attendance since March.
“Attendance has been beautiful the
last few months,” said Theresa Scavo,
chairwoman of the board, which represents
Sheepshead Bay, Gerritsen
Beach and Manhattan Beach.
The longtime community board
honcho credits the spike in attendance
to board members no longer having to
make the trek to their meeting location
in Manhattan Beach, especially
during the after-work commute.
Moreover, southern Brooklynites —
much like other residents of the city’s
far-reaching corners — can more easily
attend meetings that used to be held
in-person at other venues which forced
them to brave long commutes.
With virtual meetings, residents
can also work the forum into their own
schedules — such as during their dinnertime
or while they fi nish up with
their own work, said Hidalgo, who attends
meetings of northern Brooklyn’s
Community Board 1. “I can literally
switch from one task,” he said.
In addition, Hidalgo and Scavo
say there are other benefi ts to virtual
meetings, such as better audio and application
features, which bring more
effi ciency to meetings.
“I can hear all of the participation.
I feel more informed because I am able
to hear all the various comments and
engagement,” Hidalgo said.
On the fl ip side, online meetings leave
out community members who lack access
to the internet, or experience trouble with
the relatively-new technology — which
Community Board 7 Chair Jeremy Laufer
said has been an issue in their district of
Sunset Park and Windsor Terrace.
“There are plenty of folks in our
community who don’t have that option
as well,” Laufer said. “They don’t have
internet access and their equipment
isn’t necessarily compatible.”
Continuing with virtual meetings
post-pandemic, either on an alternating
basis or blended with in-person
meetings, is being discussed by members
of Community Board 7, but would
ultimately require updating the state
Open Meetings Law, which the governor
has been suspending with executive
order throughout the pandemic.
To reap the benefi ts of virtual meetings
without the drawbacks in the long
term, Hidalgo urged city leaders to close
the so-called “digital divide” by ensuring
that all New Yorkers have access to
their community board’s online meetings,
including by hosting meetings that
are compatible with all internet-connected
devices — such as a cellphone.
“The problem is that New York City
government technology is traditionally
designed for the laptop and desktop
user experience,” Hidalgo said.
“And so the real digital divide is making
sure community board meetings
are able to be fl exible.”
The good news is that most meeting
platforms are built with these capabilities,
but Hidalgo said the city will need
to train boards to ensure hosts know
how to connect to all devices.
“Believe it or not these meeting
tools are helping us cross the digital
divide,” he said.
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