As local and state governments respond to the coronavirus pandemic, decision- and policymakers must act in the sunshine. During this time of crisis, it is more important than ever that the public’s business be conducted in full public view.
This is not only a necessary but achievable standard. Without transparency in deliberation and decision-making, rumor and conspiracy theories proliferate just as sure as the virus, infecting communities with misinformation and breeding mistrust.
The Kirkland City Council is showing how it’s done, taking to heart that crucial trust it has with its constituents and their right to know. More about that later.
With many city, county and state offices closed to the public and courthouses limiting operations, public servants still should be nimble and communicative, ensuring public access to urgent discussions and honoring public-records requests in a timely manner.
Emergency measures intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 will be in place for weeks, possibly months. This phase will be followed by a long recovery. Those are facts, not excuses. Just as individuals, businesses and community groups have adjusted routines to honor their obligations within current public-health constraints, public servants must do the same.
State Sunshine laws allow government bodies to call emergency meetings without notice when an unexpected disaster requires immediate action to protect life or property. The state Attorney General’s office has advised that the current state of emergency is not, by itself, sufficient grounds for emergency meetings.
Governing bodies can waive meeting location and notice requirements only if that body must take expedited action. Failing that, they must seek creative and lawful ways to meet during these unusual times.
Better to streamline agendas to include only the most time-sensitive and essential matters, which elected officials can deliberate by remote conferencing. Public officials should be proactive and creative in encouraging public comment and participation. By law, these meetings must be publicly accessible.
Public servants in search of ideas can look to places like Kirkland, which recently held its first virtual city council meeting. Council members convened by video conference. The meeting was broadcast on the city channel and livestreamed on the internet. The City Hall lobby was opened for members of the public to watch the proceedings while keeping appropriate social distance. City staff — including a handful of Information Technology workers — appeared in council chambers, sitting well apart.
Open meetings and open-records laws must not fall victim to social distancing measures and emergency operations. Transparency is the legal and ethical responsibility of public officials at every level, from drainage districts to the statehouse, even as rapidly changing circumstances cause routines and public-health directives to shift.