The pandemic accelerated the virtual accessibility of government meetings throughout the state when entities scrambled to comply with open meetings laws. But for far too many Kansans, the intricacies of governing remain opaque. If technology can’t provide the answers, what can?
An interesting thing happened when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the closing of courthouses and in person government meetings.
Rather than having interest in such proceedings dwindle, it surged. In the Wichita suburb of Andover, for example, the crowd observing City Council meetings via Facebook Live went up 50% compared with a typical in-person audience.
The livestream of a murder trial in Ellis County District Court in Hays regularly drew 80 to 120 viewers; trials before typically had little to no audience at all. Portions of testimony in that trial were viewed thousands of times.
“It was amazing how much that trial was viewed,” District Judge Glenn Braun says.
“There’s always been public access. But now people don’t have to drive to the courthouse, walk in the building and sit in a room. They can do it right from their desktops, and they can watch a trial or a hearing that’s going on.
“I think myself and many other judges are now being far more cognizant of the fact that we’re being watched more than ever. Before, we did rape trials and nobody showed up. We did aggravated robbery trials and not a member of the public or from the media sat in on the hearings. Now people can do that.”
Hutchinson City Council member Jade Piros de Carvalho says she has noticed more engagement through the social media channels used by the city and Reno County since the pandemic set in.
“More people view the meetings than used to,” Piros de Carvalho says. “A lot more. So I think people have a desire to be more informed. There’s a recognition of the impact that local government has on people’s everyday lives that was lacking before.”
The attention being paid isn’t always passive.
Braun recalled a divorce hearing in which the husband had to appear for not paying money owed under a property settlement agreement. He kept insisting he didn’t have the money.
In the hearing, Braun told the husband, “I looked at your property settlement agreement. You own all these properties in town that you’ve got rentals. Go either sell one or mortgage those and get the money to pay your wife that you promised to pay.”
A few hours after the hearing, the attorney for the husband called Braun’s administrative assistant and asked what was going on.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“I’ve got Realtors calling me wondering if they can get the listing on my client’s property,” he told her.
The real estate agents had been watching a YouTube broadcast of the proceeding.
Yet not everyone is convinced growing numbers of people watching trials and divorce hearings means anything.
“Part of me thinks that’s more just the voyeuristic nosiness nature of folks,” says Erik Sartorius, executive director of the League of Kansas Municipalities.
Bach Hang, deputy attorney at the Sedgwick County Public Defender’s Office, says he hopes to see more people watching trials and hearings as Kansas moves out of the pandemic.
Public scrutiny has more value than ever today, he says.
“Especially nowadays, there’s a lot of distrust of government and, good or bad, we lawyers are lumped into that,” Hang says. “So I think it’s important to have that (legal process) as open as possible … because it allows, or hopefully develops and sustains, public trust and confidence in the way the court system works.”
Acceleration Creates Side Effects
In a nation where public trust in such basic pillars of democracy as elections, government, the legal system and the media has eroded, rebuilding confidence in the legal system by seeing it in action can be a step toward healing a deeply divided nation, he says.
Sartorius sees civic engagement in local government playing that same role.
“I think we’re still at a point where most of the time local government is fairly apolitical,” he says. “There may be passions about what priorities should be, but it’s still reasonably apolitical. It’s not a Republican pothole or a Democratic pothole; it’s just a pothole.”
Increased civic engagement is a side effect, not necessarily an intended consequence, of the livestreaming of public meetings. The development is borne out of pandemic restrictions on the size of public gatherings.
It was a requirement that local governments had to meet to satisfy Kansas’ open meetings mandates. But it had the effect of significantly accelerating investment into and use of online meetings. The Legislature alone invested nearly $4 million in pandemic relief aid to equip committee rooms and other parts of the Statehouse with televisions and cameras to facilitate long-distance participation.
Cities and counties around Kansas used federal pandemic response funds to upgrade or outfit their buildings to provide live streaming, says Samir Arif, director of public affairs for the Kansas Department of Administration. Precise spending numbers are difficult to glean because the upgrades were commonly part of larger projects.
“Several cities I know have their agendas linked” to the videos, Sartorius says. “They’ll have, like, agenda item F and if you click on that link, it will jump you … to that item. So you can get the news you want when you want it, versus committing yourself to going to city hall and sitting through what might become a three-hour meeting.”
Several cities have tried to find a way to include public comments in meetings from those who are watching remotely, Sartorius says.
“If you can have a voice in your government from your sofa and offer up ideas or comments or concerns, I think that does engage people,” he says. “Goodness, the moment somebody then hears the city council bringing up one of their points they made, I think that that clicks for people that local government is more accessible than they think it is.”
Even if that experience doesn’t spark a desire to run for office, Sartorius says, it helps the community by having more people who are willing to engage. He is among a number of officials encouraging local governments to continue live streaming of meetings after the pandemic eases.
Piros de Carvalho agrees: “Anything that can be done to reduce barriers to engagement is a positive development.”
Providing the livestream didn’t come without pitfalls, however. Hutchinson struggled to get all of its streaming platforms lined up, Piros de Carvalho says.
“We’ve been streaming on YouTube for years, but getting Facebook Live and YouTube and Zoom to work well together was a huge challenge for us,” she says. “I can’t think of any instances where it affected public comment, though.”
The public comments on livestreams became a problem for the Shawnee Mission School District in May. The Kansas News Service reports that YouTube deemed statements about the district’s mask policy by some members of the public spread medical disinformation and removed the entire board meeting from its platform. District officials decided to stop streaming public comments.
Educating the Public About Participation
Yet technology improvements alone are insufficient for ushering in any golden era of public engagement in Kansas.
Based on her eight years on the Hutchinson City Council and on countless conversations with others about lack of engagement, Piros de Carvalho says, the biggest barrier to participation isn’t the timing of the meetings or a lack of interest in local government. Instead, she says it’s a lack of understanding how to participate, which leaves constituents intimidated.
“Think about it: Does anyone teach you in school how to get up in front of a governing body and state your opinion on policy?” she asks. “Are you taught about protocol, both formal and unwritten rules? No. Every time I speak to a group of people – especially youth – I remind them that this is their government. This is their town. This is their country.
“People often have it backward. They put elected officials on pedestals, forgetting that officials are public servants. They work for the people.”
Her prescriptions for improving civic engagement? Educate people early – and remind them often – about the power they hold in a democracy.
She’s also a fan of creating civic engagement academies to help people become more comfortable with speaking before government bodies and learning about the protocols.
Such academies aren’t widespread. But they’ve been popping up in recent years, and some continued to train residents through the pandemic. Johnson County hosts a citizens academy, as do at least a handful of cities around the state.
The city of Wichita partnered with the Kansas Leadership Center, publisher of The Journal, to develop a civic engagement academy. The 2021 class, which had 52 participants, the largest ever, started an eight-week run in April.
“When we were meeting in person, we had constraints due to the size of our meeting space,” says Cory Buchta, community service representative for the city. “Virtually, we have the ability to accommodate a few more folks.”
Academy participants learn not just what a municipality does – and does not – do. They also learn how to navigate the municipal system and how to effect change through civic engagement.
Most of the time, it’s pretty simple for people to get things done, said Faith Martin, who works in talent development and attended a virtual version of Wichita’s civic engagement academy last fall. People just don’t know how to go about it.
The academies are worth participating in for the amount of knowledge alone people can pick up, Martin says.
“Just the length and breadth of resources that are available to citizens – I guarantee you people have no idea what the city provides,” she says. “If there was a county one (academy), it would be even more.”
City Council member Cindy Claycomb is also a booster. “I find Wichita’s civic engagement academy to be unique in that it does more than teach about the functions of municipal government,” she says. “In addition, the civic engagement academy teaches participants how to look at problems and challenges through an adaptive lens.”
Piros de Carvalho also favors the increased use of surveys and town hall input opportunities to help governing bodies work through major issues. And social media remains an underutilized resource for bringing the public up to date about local government business.
“Ultimately, we need to demystify the workings of government in order to encourage more engagement,” Piros de Carvalho says. “People who work up the courage to speak before the council are usually nervous wrecks. I would be too! The more accommodating we can be to input, the better.”
Getting People Involved
Yet for many people, general interest in the basic operations of government alone isn’t sufficient to inspire much participation.
Intense interest in a particular issue is what often first draws people to get involved in local government, Sartorius says.
“The interesting thing always to watch is: Does the passion then translate into showing the love and a passion for the city?” he asks. “Or is it: ‘My job here is done. I had this one thing, I solved it and I don’t want to be on city council anymore.’ Most of the time, folks tend to stay involved once they get in there.”
But the transition often doesn’t come without some hard lessons.
Opposition in Wellington to Summit Learning, an online learning platform with ties to Facebook, prompted Tom Henning and Deanna Garver to run for the school board for the first time in 2019. They were elected and helped vote Summit out of Wellington. The district is now testing other online learning programs.
Henning said his time on the school board has “absolutely not” been anything like he thought it would be.
“This is the absolute worst time to be on a school board in recent history,” Henning said in an email response to questions.
“When I got on this board, I had high hopes of changing our high school curriculum, putting that behind us, and focusing on making the district a better place,” he said. “That obviously didn’t happen. We made the curriculum change, and then COVID hit almost instantly.”
His term has included dozens of meetings and constant emails from residents wanting schools either open or closed as well as offering opinions on masking.
“It’s been a time-sucking, stressful nightmare,” he said. “Hopefully, the worst is behind us.”
There’s another way people commonly embrace civic engagement, Sartorius says: They’ve decided to give something back in support of their communities.
One example of that is Bob Rein, a native of Larned who returned to his hometown to recharge after a successful but exhausting career of installing basketball and racquetball courts around the country. He planned to spend about six months figuring out what to do next, he says, but as time passed, he realized everything he was looking for was right in front of him.
“It’s just, in my personal opinion, a better way of life,” Rein says. “It’s slower. It’s cheaper. It’s more connected. It’s more individual.”
He bought a rural property south of town and married a local woman. As he reflected on the untimely death of a classmate who was heavily involved in the local community, Rein says, he told himself, “I’m not doing enough.” When he learned there was an opening on the Pawnee County 4-H Fair board, he volunteered to fill the position.
From there, his involvement grew. He is now in his second term as a Pawnee County commissioner and will talk to anyone willing to listen about why rural Kansas can be a great place to live.
Those are the kind of people that communities need to be successful, Sartorius says, particularly in smaller cities. The cities that thrive “are the ones that have some of those community cheerleaders that are tireless, stay positive and will work in front of the scenes and behind the scenes.”
- After reading this story, do you believe that civic engagement is improving or worsening as a result of the pandemic? Please explain why.
- What adaptive challenges do you see emerging in this story?
- What technical responses might be useful for local governments in this situation? What adaptive responses do you believe would be most useful
A version of this article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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