In this file photo from July 2015, council chambers are packed with protesters angered by commercialization of Skaha Lake Park.

Recalling the good old days of 2014-2018, whenever you struck up a conversation, it often led back to city council.

For Penticton and Oliver, in particular, that was definitely a tumultuous period of time with many polarizing issues.

Today, there’s definitely not the constant scrutiny on elected officials at the local level — not just Penticton, but literally everywhere else in British Columbia.

Mayors, city councillors, regional directors and even school board trustees up and down the valley believe that’s because they are doing a good job. Perhaps they are.

It’s more likely that people are distracted and simply not paying attention to the day-to-day happenings at City Hall.

Politicians know this.

The City of Kelowna, for example, is looking at a 4% tax increase. West Kelowna is adding 12 new employees (although that is scheduled for reconsideration.)

There’s no public outrage.

It’s obvious why everyone is distracted. COVID-19 has touched every citizen, whether it’s concern for their health, the economy, mental health, taxation or family members. During a pandemic, nobody has time to react to zoning amendments.

We believe the absence of a live audience in council chambers is significant.

There have been a handful of exceptions, but since the start of the pandemic there have been very few meetings with a public gallery. You can watch them on Zoom, but it’s just not the same.

Even though a meeting only attracts a handful of faithfuls (provided there’s not a major issue or public hearing), when the public and press are there in person, it creates extra layers of accountability.

On Feb. 24, 2020, there was a school board meeting which attracted an overflow crowd. Many in the gallery were well-educated citizens. They asked hard questions. This forced the board and staff to be accountable after months of denying a budget shortfall.

A month later, COVID shut everything down. Had the meeting been conducted on Zoom, it’s possible the end result would be different.

We’re not suggesting lifting safety precautions for the sake of council meetings. We do, however, recommend that you pay attention.

—James Miller is managing editor of The Penticton Herald.