Among the many things that got washed out to sea last week in a torrent of coronavirus-related news was most of the media coverage of Sunshine Week. Started by the American Society of News Editors in 2005, Sunshine Week is an annual event promoting the importance of government openness and accountability.
Understandably, Sunshine Week didn’t get as much attention last week as it typically does. However, as we’re all adjusting to a new way of living, the principles that the event is intended to highlight are more important than ever.
All the recent government emergency orders notwithstanding, we’re still part of a functioning democracy. That means there’s a continued need for openness about what our governments at the local, state and federal levels are doing, in response to this crisis as well as with regard to their other responsibilities.
Governments are going to have to operate for a period of weeks or even months in a mode in which face-to-face interactions between people are limited or avoided completely. Which makes conducting open meetings a challenge.
First, we should give credit where credit is due: Some local leaders already were exploring ways to use technology to make government more accessible to their constituents long before the coronavirus hit. These efforts included having video of government meetings available on Facebook or other internet websites.
That’s a good idea, regardless of whether or not people are being encouraged to stay at home. Even under ideal circumstances, not everyone can attend public meetings in person for various reasons. Some people have disabilities that make it difficult for them to participate. Other people have conflicts with their personal or work schedules.
So kudos to the government agencies that were ahead of the curve in terms of making their meetings accessible electronically. Those that weren’t doing that before need to get with the times and start now.
And we’re not just talking about city councils, school boards and county commissions. Other government boards and commissions should make their meetings open to the public electronically.
It’s not all that expensive or difficult to rig up a web cam. And it’s essential for citizens to be able to evaluate what their government officials are doing, especially in difficult times such as these.
It’s important to remember, though, that citizens should be able to do more than watch public meetings. They also should have opportunities to speak out on the issues that are meaningful to them.
It isn’t sufficient to ask people interested in particular topics to submit their comments via email or some other format before government meetings begin. Few of us have psychic powers, so it’s not always possible to comment intelligently on what might happen.
And that’s the tricky part to all of this. Citizens need to be able to comment on what they see and hear during those meetings in something close to real time. Within reason, of course.
Just as people attending Pueblo City Council meetings in person don’t have the unfettered right to blurt out their thoughts at any point during council discussions, there should be some reasonable limits on how and when virtual comments will be collected.
There should be some mechanisms in place for officials who sit on those governmental agencies to see emails or direct messages from people who are watching their meetings. And share those messages with the public as well.
That wouldn’t be a perfect solution. There are some people who don’t have access to the technology they would need to participate in meetings electronically.
But we aren’t in a perfect situation, either. Government officials should take the steps necessary to make their meetings available to as many people as might possibly have interest in seeing and commenting on them.
Social distancing and public participation in our governmental process aren’t mutually exclusive.