In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis we have seen local governments go to great lengths to maintain good government transparency. Gov. Pete Ricketts issued an executive order allowing local boards to meet by video conference, teleconference or other electronic means through May 31st to prevent the spread of the virus.
Specifically, Grand Island Public Schools, Grand Island City Council and the Hall County Board of Commissioners were reported to all provide the public access to their meetings via virtual meetings. But should this only be the case in an emergency situation like the COVID-19 pandemic?
The Nebraska Open Meeting Act guarantees that every meeting of a public body shall be open to the public so that citizens may exercise their democratic privilege of attending and speaking (Neb. Rev. Stat. §§ 84-1407 through 84-1414 (2014, Cum. Supp. 2018).
Local government officials have voiced concern during the “Truth in Taxation” debate that many times their meetings are empty, and nobody attends. I believe there are plenty of people who want to attend but are unable. If the meetings were offered virtually then it would provide more access to the public and encourage more democratic debate amongst citizens. Think of those in assisted living facilities, those in the military that are stationed elsewhere, someone who is out of town, or someone that is at work during that time and can’t get off to go to the meeting.
The meetings should be recorded and posted to the governing body’s website so people could watch them at different times. Think of a stay at home parent who is getting the kids ready for bed at 6:30/7pm. They more than likely want to know what is going on in their local school district but can’t pack all the kids up to go to the meeting. Offering a virtual option would allow them to attend.
It might even provide a more cost-effective way to distribute information for local governments. Almost, if not all, local governments already have a web site for citizens to access basic information or pay their taxes. Maybe the governing body can request emails for certain communications instead of having to physically mail notices to citizens? This would allow the citizens an option of how to receive their information while also reducing the cost and staff time to associated with postal mail.
I realize the initial information technology setup for virtual meetings might come at a cost. My church is experiencing the same hurdles trying to offer virtual services during the COVID-19 social distancing. But once the technology is in place, there is no reason not to continue offering that form of communication.
This crisis has had a lot of negative consequences for the public from both a health and economic standpoint, but maybe we can use some of these experiences to benefit our society in the future. When someone gives you lemons, make lemonade.