EDITORIAL: In-person meetings better for the citizens

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Public oversight of the state Legislature is like babysitting a puppy or a toddler.

Turn your back on them for one second, and they’ll get into mischief.

So it’s no surprise that some state lawmakers are using the covid emergency to sneak in legislation that would make government less open and accessible.

A handful of lawmakers have proposed a bill that would permanently extend the emergency executive order that allowed government bodies to hold meetings remotely, without the public in the room.

The bill (A8071/S6958) would allow public bodies to conduct meetings via videoconference if the meeting was made available to view and hear online in real time, if the government body made a recording of the meeting and if the video was posted within five business days.

The bill sponsors justify their legislation – which would represent a sharp departure from the state Open Meetings Law – by saying remote meetings worked so well during the pandemic that they should be held that way all the time.

Nonsense. This is just another step toward making government officials less accountable to the people they serve.

It’s true, remote meetings did provide the public with a way to view and participate in government meetings during covid.

But as anyone who has tried to participate in these meetings has found, or who has conducted Zoom meetings for work or school, videoconferencing is a pale substitute for the access and accountability one gains when they’re physically in the room to witness, question and confront.

When there are actual constituents in the room, public officials have to respond to them.

They have to speak louder when a constituent can’t hear the discussion or answer a shouted question instead of pretending they don’t hear it.

When constituents share the same space, they can much better communicate with one another and hear each other’s questions and concerns.

In person, citizens and reporters covering the meeting can more easily challenge a move to go into closed-door executive session. And citizen or reporter can corner a resident or public official after a meeting or during a break to get them to explain or clarify their remarks.

Certainly, boards should continue to air their meetings online, in addition to going back to in-person meetings. For all their shortcomings, online meetings are convenient for people with children and others who can’t attend a meeting in person.

Allowing all-remote meetings to take the place of in-person meetings is a cowardly, cynical and ineffective way for a government body to conduct the public’s business.

Let’s hope lawmakers see this legislation for the fool’s gold that it is and let it drop when they next convene.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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