The Hyattsville City Council chambers from several years ago — fittingly — empty
Courtesy of the City of Hyattsville

There’s a moment during the Feb. 20 city council meeting when City Clerk Laura Reams asks if any individuals present in the audience would like to address the mayor or council. The motion comes at the start of the meeting, soon after a roll call of disembodied voices, missing microphones, and text messages declaring “Here.” It comes after a pledge of allegiance that is, at no individual’s fault, farcical, a product of Zoom, where the camera — not programmed to allow for more than one speaker at a time — flickers erratically among the councilmembers, searching for the loudest voice, for the person who is supposed to be talking.

Reams herself isn’t on camera because she needs to screenshare the two-minute speaking timer. She asks audience members who have a public comment to use the Raise Hand feature at the bottom of the screen. It is a moment for the people, for the citizens of Hyattsville, to engage with their government. To list grievances. Raise concerns. Yell. Applaud. Something. Yet no one speaks. There is only the silence of the screen, reinforced by the frozen timer. If an audience exists, the viewer isn’t aware. The city council meeting proceeds, seemingly for its own sake.

Aside from a Feb. 26 budget work session at the Hyattsville Municipal Building Multipurpose Room, the Hyattsville City Council has not met in person since March 2, 2020. In those four years, Magruder Park has been renamed Driskell Community Park. David Driskell himself, for whom the park would be named, passed away from complications due to covid. Hyattsville Middle School was designed and built from scratch by the county with input from the city.

And yet, throughout these transformative events, the people of Hyattsville have not shared a room with their government, have not been able to observe more than one councilmember at the same time (if they can observe them at all; some cameras remain off), have not gripped the wood of the speaking podium and made their presence more difficult to dismiss than with the brief click of a mute button.

When asked, Reams — who is also director of the city’s Communications and Legislative Services — said the council chambers are being disassembled to make room for audiovisual equipment that will allow online attendees to not merely observe, but also participate in, meetings. Previously, the chambers were “set up for video viewing only.” The council voted in June 2023 to allocate money from the city’s American Rescue Plan Act funds to transform the chambers into a hybrid space. However, no timeline has been set for finishing the project. I was told something similar by a city official six months ago. According to Reams, the city’s goal is “as soon as possible.”

“We want to make sure the technology works and meets the needs of the community,” Reams said in an email. “We do not have a firm timeline at the moment, but are currently acquiring the equipment and securing contractors to complete the Council Chambers project.”

At the core of all this is, of course, the pandemic. Out of necessity, in 2020, the meetings went online. The Maryland Open Meetings Act was revised and asterisked, with an underlying message of something like, “Even though there might be problems with audio and technical difficulties, virtual meetings don’t — at least for now — legally violate the act.” The Open Meetings Compliance Board went on to express discomfort with what a lack of internet access might portend for potential violations but stressed that — for virtual citizens upset about their inability to comment — Maryland state law only guarantees the ability to “observe” meetings. A “state of emergency” was cited, with an implicit translation of “What can we do.”

But the public health emergency has been officially over since May 11, 2023. Takoma Park went back to in-person meetings in March 2022. Greenbelt currently meets in person, as does College Park — with an additional option to attend via Zoom. Laurel mixes it up: The first meeting of the month is held virtually, while the second is held in person.

And then there’s Hyattsville.

I don’t mean to imply that virtual council meetings aren’t beneficial. For those who can’t afford or arrange child care, or can’t make the commute downtown, or might even be indisposed due to illness, having a virtual option is genuinely helpful. Nor do I mean to portray online council meetings as always devoid of participation. As Councilmember Joanne Waszczak (Ward 1) pointed out to me, the recent string of meetings in which rent stabilization was on the table were well attended, with a public comment section that Waszczak called “powerful.” Mayor Robert Croslin even extended comment times for those who needed translation.

But noticeably absent from those public comments were the faces of the citizens providing them. Video is disabled for participants during the Zoom meetings. The council doesn’t see constituents, much less feel their presence. Ten years ago this would have seemed dystopian: a faceless citizenry addressing a photograph of its leaders through a computer screen. National government is already something to be watched on TV between advertisements. If local government recedes behind that barrier, too, is not all government abstracted from the people?

Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate the parameters of city council meetings altogether. When discussing the drawbacks of in-person meetings, Waszczak mentioned that public buses run less frequently at 7 p.m. when meetings begin, and are even scarcer at 10 or 11 p.m. when they adjourn. These late hours can also be tough for councilmembers with full-time jobs and families. Would a possible solution, then, be to start the meetings earlier, say 5:30 or 6 p.m.? Or, rather, could we shift them to Saturdays, when more people are free? Motions have long been in place elsewhere to reschedule other democratic activities, such as voting, to weekends.

As for continued virtual participation, why not move the meetings to a temporary space where temporary microphones and cameras could be set up? Those who can’t attend in person can submit their comments ahead of time and watch them read aloud. This is hardly different from speaking unseen to a computer before disappearing for the rest of the meeting. The intricacy of built-in microphones and cameras from the council chambers might be difficult to replicate, but surely someone on the city payroll with the technical chops can find a large enough room to rig the AV setup required for such a feat. Or, the city could simply adopt Laurel’s method of rotating between virtual and in-person meetings. Measures like this would suffice until the council chambers can be completed, or until a date for that completion can be given.

It’s important for politicians and their constituents to be present in the same room, feel that responsibility to one another, share something — even if it’s just the same exit or a “Bless you” following a sneeze — to ensure that one is not above the other, that no one is separate and untouchable.

I recently watched a video of that last in-person city council meeting, from March 2020. Maybe it was the dramatic irony of the Purell being passed around between comments, or the foreknowledge of the years of isolation and tragedy that would ensue. But something about the meeting struck me as incredibly human. Mayor Candace Hollingsworth called music teacher Nevilla Ottley to the dais to praise her for 32 years of service, hugging her twice in the process. Councilmembers and citizens mired themselves in a lively, often comical, discussion about legalizing backyard chickens. A resident named Marshall requested that African American men be included on the Race and Equity Task Force and remarked on the class differences between East and West Hyattsville. It was beautiful. 

Yet I couldn’t help noticing that over half the city councilmembers from that meeting have now been replaced. Which means seven out of 10 sitting Hyattsville councilmembers have never experienced an in-person city council meeting. 

Is this, then, a transitional generation, ushering us into an era of purely virtual government? Or is it merely a matter of newer councilmembers needing to experience that atmosphere once or twice in order to understand its importance? The nature of frontiers is that lines of demarcation are difficult to draw. But the line must be drawn somewhere.


Griffin Limerick is the managing editor of the Life & Times.