Pandemic redefines 'public' access to government meetings

 In this Feb. 10, 2021, file photo, Carmen Senski, monitors a Zoom meeting of the Virginia House Appropriations Committee at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. A year after COVID-19 triggered government shutdowns and crowd limitations, more public bodies than ever are livestreaming their meetings for anyone to watch from a computer, television or smartphone. But in some cases, it's become harder for people to actually talk with their elected officials. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

It wasn't long ago  when a "public meeting" of the city council or state legislature meant  the general public could show up to watch and, quite often, speak about  proposals and perceived problems.

The coronavirus  pandemic has put an end to that in many places, perhaps permanently  altering the way the American public interacts with government.

A year after  COVID-19 triggered government shutdowns and crowd limitations, more  public bodies than ever are livestreaming their meetings for anyone to  watch from a computer, television or smartphone. But  in some cases, it's become harder for people to actually talk with  their elected officials.

An Associated Press  survey of state legislatures found that most no longer allow people  inside their chambers to observe, and some still do not allow people to  testify remotely at committee hearings where  legislation is shaped. At some city council meetings convened remotely,  the only avenue for public input is a written comment.

"In a way, this is  kind of helping move us toward a country where citizens can be more  involved in their government through Zoom, and that's a good thing,"  said David Cuillier, an associate journalism professor  at the University of Arizona who is president of the National Freedom  of Information Coalition.

But overall, he said, the pandemic "has created more problems" for public oversight of government.

All 50 state  legislatures already provided video or audio of their floor sessions  before the pandemic. The Missouri and North Carolina senates currently  are the only chambers offering just audio, which can  make it difficult for listeners to recognize the speakers.

As a result of the  pandemic, all legislative chambers now also provide live audio or video  feeds of at least some committee hearings. A growing number are  archiving those files for people to access on demand,  according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But the AP survey  found that 13 legislative chambers in eight states — Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska and Ohio — still do not  allow people outside the Capitol to testify remotely  by phone or video during committee hearings. Most of those chambers let  the public attend hearings in-person, but some people have been  reluctant to do so because of COVID-19.

"I won't send any  person into that Capitol right now, no matter how important the issue  is. It's just not safe," said Jen Bersdale, executive director of the  nonprofit advocacy group Missouri Health Care for  All, which scrapped its in-person lobbying day at the Capitol.

Bersdale helped  organize a letter from about three dozen organizations urging Missouri  lawmakers to allow remote testimony at hearings and make themselves  available for video or phone calls with people who  do not want to enter the building.

The Republican-led  Missouri Senate does not allow remote testimony. The GOP-led House  adopted a rule this year leaving the decision to each committee. But  approval must be granted at least one committee hearing  in advance, which could be a full week based on typical schedules. So  far, only a few of the four dozen House committees have used the option.

Democratic state Rep. Tracy McCreery said she fears the lack of remote testimony is "shutting down public voices."

"It feels like it's  just legislators and lobbyists, and I really miss just talking to  Missourians that aren't getting paid to be in that building," she said.

The Arizona House  also leaves it up to committee chairs to decide whether to allow remote  testimony. But anyone wanting remote access to hearings first must go to  the Capitol to register.

Republican Rep. John  Kavanagh, chairman of the House Government and Elections Committee,  initially refused to let the public testify remotely at his hearings  because he feared getting overloaded with witnesses  from other states. He later allowed it after he saw that virtual  testimony worked fine in other committees.

But Kavanagh remains  concerned that interest groups could game the system by lining up  scores of people to provide video testimony.

"The problem, of  course, is not hearing what people have to say. It's getting a grossly  distorted representation of people's views because certain organized  groups totally dominate the input," Kavanagh said.

When the coronavirus  emerged last year, some local governments and court systems struggled with how to allow public access while still complying with orders that  prohibited or significantly limited in-person gatherings. The result was that some initial actions were taken in  secret.

Many courts have since expanded their use of virtual hearings, especially for pretrial  motions and bail determinations. Inmates have appeared by video from jails and attorneys from their offices or homes.  The remote hearings have saved travel time for lawyers and jail staff.

"If tomorrow COVID  were cured, would we still continue with virtual hearings? Well,  probably, yeah," said Bill Raftery, a senior analyst at the National  Center for State Courts.

Though some states  already allowed officials to participate remotely in meetings, most  states had to change or suspend their open-meeting requirements to  accommodate coronavirus precautions.

Washington Gov. Jay  Inslee, for example, prohibited in-person government meetings unless  they limit capacity, keep attendees at least 6 feet apart and require  masks. The Democratic governor's order also requires  the public to be able to listen remotely by telephone.

Legislation by Rep.  Gerry Pollet, a Democrat, would put the remote public-access provisions  into state law, require more entities to post their meeting agendas  online and require that the public be given a  chance to comment at any regular meetings — remote or live — where  final actions are taken.

"It's been very much  of a surprise to people to learn (during the pandemic) that there is no  right under the state open-meetings act for the public to comment at  public meetings," Pollet said.

The California city  of Redlands, east of Los Angeles, used to allow people attending its  meetings to publicly speak about issues. Since the pandemic, the council  has held virtual meetings that are livestreamed  on its website. The public can watch but can no longer speak. Instead,  the city clerk reads aloud any written public comments received at least  24 hours in advance of a meeting. Late comments are added to a packet  of materials for council members but not audibly  shared.

The written-only format often has drawn more commenters than the in-person meetings did, said City Clerk Jeanne Donaldson.

But Ross French's  comment, which criticized the "temper tantrum" of a councilman, wasn't  read aloud because he sent it several hours after the deadline. That  left him disappointed. Tone, inflection and emotion  often get lost when thoughts are not personally spoken, he said. 

"When someone else  is reading your copy," said French, a digital communications manager at a  local university, "it's never going to be exactly how you intended it."

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