Speaking Out: Finding a Better Way Forward

Jennifer Robinson, NCLM President

The last few months have been unquestionably the most challenging time facing local governments and locally elected officials in decades. As my term as president of the North Carolina League of Municipalities begins, I know that many of you struggle with the huge questions of the day: how do we emerge from this global pandemic and best help protect our residents’ health and their economic future; and, how do we best address calls for social justice and more equitable approaches to policing?

These are not easy questions, and will not be solved with a single or a simple answer. Solutions will require a lot of hard work, listening and all segments of our society pulling together.

That said, I am confident that our locally-elected officials are prepared to help lead their communities to pull through these trying times. Already, we have seen North Carolina cities and towns led by local leaders enacting meaningful steps to protect residents’ health, and more recently, begin community conversations to look for effective policing reforms.

As daunting as the challenges are, we also already see towns and cities across the state adapting to a new normal in innovative and effective ways. Initially, that adaptation involved finding ways to respond to residents with questions about the COVID-19 virus and city responses using social media, other digital communication and even cloud-based call centers that could quickly get answers to residents suddenly dropped into a world of unknowns.

In Asheville, the city partnered with Buncombe County and a local telephone service company to create and operate a cloud-based COVID-19 hotline within days.

In those early days of the crisis, remote council meetings and finding innovative ways to encourage remote participation by the public became the norm in many cities and towns, even as we sought and received clarifying legislation from the General Assembly regarding how we could proceed. With a number of cities and towns already utilizing software office suites that allowed for staff to meet remotely, the transition to teleworking from home for many municipal workers happened seamlessly.

Of course, a lot of municipal government services require people working on the ground, and first responders and other workers have performed their duties heroically in the midst of the virus threat. But for many services traditionally thought of as requiring in-person delivery, the COVID-19 crisis is leading to innovation that will have a lasting footprint.

In my town of Cary, and many others across the state, live remote inspections are taking place for occupied dwellings. Parks and Recreation departments are offering streaming exercise and other classes. Local arts councils are holding more arts and crafts classes online. Public libraries are conducting book readings that reach children over the internet.

The COVID-19 crisis and its economic effects are creating hardship and tragedy. It’s not easy for any of us. But a silver lining is that we can and are reimagining the ways in which we do business. And we can continue doing so, bringing services to our residents in more effective and cost-efficient ways that last beyond this pandemic and are part of a brighter tomorrow.