Media Release: During COVID-19 State of Emergency, Transparency and Public Access to Government Proceedings Must Be Maintained
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – March 18, 2020
Contact: Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera (612)605-7978 or firstname.lastname@example.org
During COVID-19 State of Emergency, Transparency and Public Access to Government Proceedings Must Be Maintained
As public officials at every level of government wrestle with 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, Common Cause Minnesota encourages public officials to adopt emergency measures to protect public health while maximizing transparency and remote public participation and limiting government business to priority functions necessary under the current emergency conditions.
“The COVID-19 pandemic presents an unprecedented challenge to our institutions of government, Gov. Walz, Speaker Hortman, and Senator Gazelka have responded promptly to the challenge, but public officials can and must do everything reasonably possible to maximize transparency and remote public access to government meetings and proceedings,” said Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera, president of Common Cause. “Our priorities may have shifted, but as Gov. Walz noted, that does not mean democracy goes on hiatus. In addition to accomplishing priority functions such as budgets, pandemic response legislation, and recovery planning, I encourage our leaders to continue working making sure people can both be safe and continue to exercise their right to vote.” Minnesotans expect and deserve the ability to oversee and participate in government decision making. While it is crucial for public officials to follow the guidance of the CDC and public health officials, it is likewise crucial for public officials to ensure that government business conducted at this extraordinary time be as transparent as possible, with opportunities for public participation via videoconference, teleconference and through written testimony.
Common Cause urges strict compliance with CDC guidance and the guidance of state and local public health officials. It is understandable that public officials are curtailing legislative sessions and limiting the public’s in-person access to government proceedings. However, public confidence in government is more important during a time of crisis than ever. We’ve been told members are working during the next two weeks, however, very little has been shared about what they are working on and what does this mean for the March 20th deadline on bills held in committees or how is communication happening or voting taking place. 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 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 officer to suspend discussion until audio/video is restored.
- Require all votes to be roll call votes.
- At the beginning of any executive session, require all members of the public body to state that no other person is present or can hear them.
- Record all open sessions of meetings and make such recordings available to the public via a government website.
Any reduction in public transparency and public participation in government proceedings must not be exploited by any political party or interest group for personal, partisan or other political gains. The same rules of access must apply to everyday Americans and well-connected lobbyists. This is a time for our country 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.