In my days as a newspaper reporter on a municipal beat, I covered countless city council and planning commission meetings. As I reflect on them, I can only conclude that this idea floated by Christian Madera is unwise.

Right now, most traditional public meetings are formatted as follows: for each business item on the agenda, there is generally presentation (either by staff or another party), followed by a brief period of official public comment, at which point there is usually a vote by the decision makers. For citizens to participate and have any input, they have to attend the meeting at its scheduled time and location, wait until their agenda item is taken up for discussion, and then get up to speak up for in front of a room of people for their allotted time, all in hope that what they say will make any difference in the minds of elected officials in the few minutes prior to their vote.

Virtual meetings and videoconferencing have the potential to make change this format so that is more useful for both officials and citizens. Rather than everything compressed into one meeting, the whole process could be broken up and digitized. Agenda items and their related video presentations could be posted online in advance of the actual meeting. Over a period of one or two weeks, citizens and officials could view the presentations, and then post or upload comments or questions, to which staff and officials could then respond. Other citizens who didn't want to comment themselves could view the comments, and cast votes for which they supported. After the comment period, the public meeting could be held where a summary of the virtual public input and discussion could be presented in synthesized form to the elected officials and the public before the decision is made. The official meeting would also be broadcast online and archived for those who couldn't attend in person.

Mr. Madera is correct that forcing people to attend meetings in person if they wish to make their voices heard is a barrier to entry, but that is a feature, not a bug -- it is a necessary evil that elected officials sit through a succession of worthless comments to hear the small percentage worth mulling, and if it were appreciably easier to weigh in on every question from home the problem would grow even worse.

There is also the question of civility. Anyone who has spent an appreciable amount of time in the comment sections of political blogs knows that when people interact virtually rather than face to face, they are far more likely to treat their interlocutors with vituperation or disrespect. In fact, it is almost as if abusive commenters don't realize they are talking to an actual human being on the other end of the computer.

The public meeting is a longstanding American tradition, and its value is easy to underestimate, especially as it falls out of fashion, precisely because folks inexperienced in its methods haven't any way of knowing what they're missing by doing all their political advocacy through a computer screen. Ours is a country of better speakers than writers, and better listeners than readers. Give a man a microphone and his earnestness will come through in his voice. People will listen politely in most instances, unless he is entirely unreasonable. Force him to lay out his concerns via a comment thread only if you'd rather see an ungrammatical entry in all caps that his fellow citizens vote down virtually based on the not entirely unreasonable guess that he's a troll. It seems unimaginable to me that based on the available evidence anyone can conclude that Internet comment threads are an improvement on anything, and that's before municipal moderation.

Democracy at the most local level can be improved by technology, and meetings should be available for viewing on the Internet, as should public documents, but there is real value in standing among concerned neighbors to deliberate over a matter of public policy, when it is possible. Opting for a virtual process instead is a substitute of quality for convenience in one of the few realms where face to face conversations are still a viable possibility, if only people tend to their most basic civic responsibilities, and stop thinking about public policy as something that is only made in Washington DC.