A Pandemic Isn’t an Excuse
It’s critical during times of crisis that we preserve the fundamental principles of good governance and transparency in our democracy. Whether through neglect or malfeasance, we cannot allow this pandemic to become an excuse to limit the people’s ability to participate in their democracy and to hold their elected officials accountable.
During a recent meeting of the Morgan County Commissioners, the format used by the meeting administrators prevented members of the public from exercising their basic democratic rights of assembly and to petition their elected officials. Members of the public were unable to make statements; they were unable to see how many (if any) other citizens were in attendance; and they were unable to see how many (if any) other citizens were attempting to engage the commissioners. In the end, no members of the public were given opportunity to speak on matters that impact all residents of Morgan County. And the commissioners ignored the public comments that were visible in the meeting chat session.
This is not intended as a rebuke of the Morgan County Board of Commissioners, but simply one example of a much wider situation that all Americans should be concerned about. We cannot allow this crisis to be used as a screen behind which our elected officials take cover and conduct the people’s business without the people’s input.
To this end, our local elected officials and administrators have a duty to simulate the conditions of an in-person event to the greatest extent possible. This rule should apply to any conditions that affect:
- How members of the public are made aware of the meeting
- What members of the public are granted access to the meeting
- Ability for attendees to view and identify other persons in attendance, in particular those who have made, or are attempting to make, public comment
- Which members of the public are allowed to comment and the manner in which they are allowed to do so
- Transparency of public comments, including the full content of all comments and questions submitted over electronic means, either before or during the course of the meeting
Ultimately, this crisis should serve as a welcome reminder that government—be it local, state or federal—exists to serve the collective interests of the people, not its own. And it cannot perform those duties if it is not open to what the public has to say about the issues under discussion and if it does not permit others to hear the comments and concerns of their fellow citizens.