Editorial: Keep meetings open

Posted 3/24/22

The benefits of more people accessing, following and interacting with their government far exceed the negative, or potential negative, impacts. Government is best when it not only represents citizens, but involves them.

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Editorial: Keep meetings open

Posted

One of the earliest Covid pandemic adaptations turned out to be one of its best. Remote access to public meetings was at first a confusing scramble into a weird new reality; before long it became the best thing to happen to open government since Al Gore invented the internet.

To their tremendous credit, public agencies learned quickly how to conduct their business in a virtual format. They figured out the technology, whether crude or sophisticated. They held their meetings, shared their screens, called out their votes, and kept governments functioning. Some of their business is the routine and mundane, but so much more is critical to maintaining normalcy in life.

Paving streets, funding schools, approving construction projects, adopting Covid policies — all are crucial to a healthy society, and for more than a year, they all unfolded over Zoom or other remote meeting platforms.

It did not take long for the new formats to capture the attention of new audiences. Slowly, as government continued to keep people away from each other or from gathering in indoor spaces, people began to hear about the new form of public meetings. Slowly, they logged in and checked it out. What they found fascinated them.

Instead of reading one person’s terse Facebook post about what that damned school committee was up to now, they could see for themselves. They could follow along, watch the person they actually voted into office, and even join the conversation every now and then. The best part is they could do all this while wearing sweats, maybe sipping wine, or putting the kids to bed, or answering some of the new 16-hour-workday’s emails, from the comfort of their home, without sitting for hours in a mostly empty government hall.

Before long, government became must-see TV, and audiences loved it. No one has tracked the data to prove it, but we can say with absolute certainty that remote access to public meetings has expanded dramatically since the start of the pandemic.

Not everyone is happy about it. Some in government are fatigued by the many impacts of the larger audience, which can include more critics, more interruptions and longer meetings. These can be real, but we also believe they vary depending on the strength of leadership in the agency itself.

Now that meetings are returning to their original form, some government bodies are choosing to abandon the remote access for the public in favor of full, in-person formats. They seem happy to turn off the screens and say goodbye to many in the public.

Lawmakers at the Rhode Island General Assembly are expected to consider the future of public meetings in Rhode Island. They could mandate remote access at meetings, allow individual choice, or they could revert to the old ways of doing things, when no one had ever heard of remote access. We strongly advocate that they not go backward.

The benefits of more people accessing, following and interacting with their government far exceed the negative, or potential negative, impacts. Government is best when it not only represents citizens, but involves them.

Therefore, we urge state leaders to amend the Open Meetings Law to mandate hybrid meetings for most large government bodies, to allow remote participation for the public, and to set guardrails for healthy access and healthy conduct for both the public and the boards. This genie is out of the bottle, and government is better for it.

2022 by East Bay Media Group

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Mike Rego

Mike Rego has worked at East Bay Newspapers since 2001, helping the company launch The Westport Shorelines. He soon after became a Sports Editor, spending the next 10-plus years in that role before taking over as editor of The East Providence Post in February of 2012. To contact Mike about The Post or to submit information, suggest story ideas or photo opportunities, etc. in East Providence, email mrego@eastbaymediagroup.com.