So much has changed in the world over a year amid the coronavirus pandemic. It’s hard to name anyone or anything that in some way has not been impacted.
Government has felt the effects in the way it does business. Offices were closed for extended periods of time but are mostly now back in semi-regular operation. But many governmental bodies such as councils and boards are continuing to meet virtually using programs such as Zoom.
T&D Staff Writer Gene Zaleski says the virtual meetings have had the most effect on the way his job as a journalist has changed.
“The biggest challenge of virtual meetings has been getting public input on various government/board proceedings as the public comment portion of board meetings has been curtailed and in some cases eliminated due to the virtual setting. Some boards have set up separate electronic avenues for the public to communicate.
“I believe in many ways things have changed for the good as public bodies have exercised innovation and creativity to ensure transparency is maintained. Virtual and electronic media have opened meetings to a wider audience.
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“Ironically, the virtual platform has enabled meetings to become more accessible as individuals can attend the meetings via Zoom, Facebook Live, Microsoft Teams etc. than they would otherwise from an in-person setting.”
Zaleski is on the front line in reporting and his assessment should be reassuring to a public that needs to know what its government is doing. As vaccinations continue and the pandemic (hopefully) fades away, government will be transitioning back to a more traditional way of doing business.
It’s important people know that whether meetings of governmental bodies are in-person or virtual, government has obligations under the Freedom of Information Act:
• Publicly announce a meeting at least 24 hours in advance.
• Provide an agenda for every meeting in advance.
• Provide to the public copies of documents being considered at a public meeting.
• Enter into a closed session only for specific reasons as outlined in FOIA.
• Take no action in close sessions.
• Provide minutes of public meetings.
Anyone familiar with public meetings will attest that some public bodies take FOIA far more seriously than others, understanding that in most instances they are unlikely to face a formal – or even informal – challenge. But now that the coronavirus has changed so many things, our hope is that a new era of open government can sprout from new ways of conducting the public’s business.
A return to face-to-face meetings with public comment periods will be positive development but the new ground that has been broken by public bodies in offering citizens a way to attend virtually should not be sacrificed. Getting more people involved with their local government is and should be a primary goal of our elected leaders as they use the opportunity to show how the public’s business is supposed to be conducted.