During COVID-19 State of Emergency, We Must Maintain Transparency and Public Access to Maryland’s Government Proceedings
- Joanne Antoine (443) 906-0442 Jantoine@commoncause.org
Maryland’s public officials are actively addressing the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, including implementation of social distancing measures that impact the public’s ability to attend government meetings and other proceedings. As public officials adopt emergency measures to protect public health, Common Cause Maryland encourages the maximization of transparency and remote public participation, and also limiting government business to priority functions necessary under the current emergency conditions.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting every person and institution in the state of Maryland. Unfortunately, another negative impact is the unavoidable lack of knowledge and unpredictability of this health crisis. What we want to avoid during this time is a lack of access to information and decision making by public officials and board members.” said Joanne Antoine, Executive Director of Common Cause Maryland. “Marylanders expect and deserve the ability to oversee and participate in government decision making. Our government must pursue strategies to adapt widely-available technology to facilitate their work. The democratic process still needs to be of high importance.
The Hogan administration has prohibited events that draw more than 10 people in an effort to adhere to federal guidelines aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Additionally, government buildings, schools and nonessential businesses have been closed and everyone is being encouraged to stay home. This is certainly the best practice. However, with these prohibitions in place, public officials need to be completely transparent in their actions, as public access to government meetings and other proceedings has been limited.
Maryland’s confidence in our government is more important during a time of crisis than ever. Public officials must do everything in their power to maximize the ability of the public to continue observing and participating in government proceedings, following these recommendations provided by Common Cause where possible:
- Postpone non-priority government action until the state of emergency has ended.
- Provide widespread public notice of scheduled government proceedings.
- Provide public access to observe government proceedings via live and recorded video available on government websites.
- Provide public ability to participate in government proceedings via videoconference where possible and, at a minimum, via telephone and submission of written testimony.
- Require all members of a public body participating in a meeting or proceeding to be clearly audible and visible at all times, including to the public.
- At the start of the meeting, require the chair to announce the names of any members of the public body participating remotely.
- In the event audio or video coverage of a proceeding or meeting is interrupted, require the presiding official to suspend discussion until audio/video is restored.
- Require all votes to be roll call votes.
- At the beginning of any closed session, require all members of the public body to state that no other person is present or can hear them.
- Record and archive all open sessions of meetings and make recordings available for later access on website.
- For additional guidance on Open Meetings Act, see Office of the Attorney General’s FAQs.
This is a time for Marylanders to be united to protect each other as we face COVID-19, and that includes respecting and protecting public participation in and oversight of government.