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GREG HARTON: Maintaining remote meeting access values public participation

by Greg Harton | April 25, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

Whether you're a conservative who believes the reach of government ought to be limited or a liberal who views government as the most direct mechanism for good, it seems some common ground might be the value of open government.

Open government is what it sounds like: Government in which the laws, the publicly elected leaders and public employees embrace the fact they are doing the work of the people. Those groups have a legal, ethical and moral obligation not just to follow the law, but to go above and beyond in making government decision-making and records accessible to the public they serve.

Whether that's the reality depends on whether government leaders establish openness as a fundamental expectation of their offices. Some do and some don't.

In a way I didn't quite anticipate, the covid-19 pandemic had the effect of making local government more accessible to the Average Joe than before any of us had ever heard of the coronavirus.

County and city governments shifted a year or so ago to online technology such as Zoom, a video conferencing platform a lot of corporations also converted to as a way to avoid spreading covid-19 while making their meetings still possible. By doing so, these public bodies made it far easier for residents to participate in public meetings from their own living rooms. In the case of a quorum court, for example, a resident in Cincinnati (far west Washington County) could avoid the 45-minute drive to the Washington County Courthouse in Fayetteville (and sitting with potential covid spreaders) but still comment on business pending before the 15 elected justices of the peace or the county planning board.

Now, the covid-19 public health threat hasn't disappeared, but Gov. Asa Hutchinson is satisfied that the mandates of the past year can be eased as vaccinations spread. That has triggered some public bodies to begin the move back to face-to-face meetings, with varying levels of concern for public participation.

Washington County Judge Joseph Wood quickly pulled the plug on Zoom participation at Quorum Court meetings, without announcing the change. His was a wholesale shift back to pre-covid practices, as though covid-19 simply isn't an issue anymore. To participate in meetings, the public now has to show up in person. If they didn't get one of the physically distanced seats in the public gallery, well, that was just too bad. He also dropped the requirement of wearing masks in the Quorum Court chambers, saying the governor had ended the mandate.

Benton County Judge Barry Moehring decided to keep pairing in-person meetings with the availability of remote participation for those who preferred it. He maintained county guidelines asking people to wear masks during meetings when social distancing can't be maintained, regardless of what the governor required.

The Fayetteville City Council continued its Zoom broadcasts last week even as it opened the council chambers for the first time in a long time to public attendance. Mayor Lioneld Jordan said the Zoom option would continue for the foreseeable future. The city limited space inside the chambers to practice distancing, but had space outside the doors and in a first-floor room showing the meeting for others who wanted to participate in person.

There's really little reason public bodies should feel the need to immediately cut off remote options for public participation, short of intentionally using covid-19 as a way to create barriers to it. Strong, community-minded leaders can handle the public scrutiny. Indeed, many of them view it as critical to their public service roles.

Those are the public officials who understand they are in office to be responsive to the public, not hide from them.

Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWAGreg.


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