By now, most public officials have had some practice conducting essential business while social distancing.
As government officials take up broader agendas under relaxed restrictions, they must redouble commitment to transparency. Deliberations about policing policies, tax strategies and other business on behalf of constituents should include ample opportunity for members of the public to comment. Discussions should take place in full public view.
Since March, local city councils, school boards and other public decision-making bodies have met and gathered public input remotely — whether by conference call, Zoom meeting or other similar technology. By Gov. Jay Inslee’s March 24 executive order, they were to limit deliberation to “necessary and routine matters” or “matters necessary to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak and the current public health emergency.” That meant essential business could be handled, but anything else, including new initiatives, would be delayed.
Now, with some distancing measures likely necessary for the indeterminate future, the governor and state legislative leaders have extended waivers of portions of public records and open meetings law that require physical presence. They have granted public bodies greater discretion over what business to conduct remotely at least through June 17.
It was a necessary move. Contracts, land deals, agreements and other workaday matters cannot be postponed indefinitely. With therapies and vaccines still months away, accommodations must be made.
But the diffuse nature of virtual meetings and remote work demand extra care to ensure public access to public records and decision-making. In the coming months, government bodies will no doubt need to take some extraordinary measures as they grapple with the ripple effects of this spring’s pandemic. Cities and counties will be called to make difficult budget decisions. School boards, especially, will have to implement sweeping changes to balance children’s education while safeguarding public health.
Virtual meetings and remote opportunities for public comment may have become the norm over the past few weeks, but this is no time to fall into complacency.
Public officials have a legal and ethical responsibility to conduct the people’s business in full public view.