EDITORIAL: Government officials should face the public in person

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Being on a government board requires a basic commitment to show up in person and face the people who put you in office.

If you’re a public servant who can’t or won’t fulfill that basic commitment, then maybe you need to choose a new way to serve.

The Montgomery County Legislature is among several government bodies in the state considering a local law that would allow legislators to participate in meetings by videoconference if they are unable to be physically present under “extraordinary circumstances.” Those circumstances include “disability, illness, care-giving responsibilities, or any other significant or unexpected factor or event.”

How easy under those atrociously broad exceptions would it be for an official to say he has a cold and avoid the scrutiny that being present would bring?

Think how awesome it would be for an elected official who doesn’t want to face the public on a controversial issue. Or who wants to cast an unpopular vote without being cornered in the lobby by angry constituents afterward. Or who simply wants to hide off to the side on a video screen while his or her fellow legislators take the brunt of the public’s ire and questions.

Remote meetings during the emergency health crisis were designed to allow the public to continue to have access to government meetings, not to allow elected officials to slip responsibility by governing via Zoom.

One could argue that allowing officials to participate remotely is better than not having them participate in the meeting at all.

But government bodies have been handling this issue in this country for over two centuries.

Boards right now can’t meet or take action without a quorum. At least half of the representative body therefore has a say, ensuring that citizens are represented.

If a board member is sick the day of a meeting or on a business trip or has a family emergency, that person forfeits his or her ability to participate and vote on agenda items. Being present is part of the responsibility of public service.

If it’s absolutely vital that board members be in attendance for an issue, boards can just postpone votes or discussions until a date when more members are available ( unless there’s a final deadline they have to meet).

Often, because of the difficulty in getting members to show up, such as during the summer months, boards don’t hold meetings at all or they reduce the number of meetings during those times.

And frankly, we’ve had the technology to allow this sort of chicanery for 150 years. It’s called the telephone. Why before now haven’t boards been clamoring to allow absent board members to listen in on a call and chime in and vote? Why? Because in-person participation in meetings is vital to serving the public. New technology hasn’t changed that.

In many ways, remote technology has made our work and personal lives better.

Allowing our public officials to govern remotely would have the opposite effect.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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