Government transparency gets screen time

From the Coeur d’Alene Press

Staff Writer | January 8, 2021 1:06 AM

In the days of Zoom, teleconferences, and Youtube, Idaho’s general public has never had more accessibility to government meetings.

Officials like Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and the nonprofit Idahoans for Openness in Government hoped to continue this trend through a free virtual seminar Thursday afternoon.

Nearly 500 government officials and staff, news professionals and citizens participated in the “Open Meetings in the Pandemic: Setting the Record Straight” seminar, hosted by Wasden and IDOG President Betsy Z. Russell. Featuring Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane, the three panelists walked listeners through various scenarios and recommendations to navigate these uncertain times.

“No matter what the emergency is that we’re going through, or what the crisis is that we’re addressing, we still want to make sure that the government functions as openly and transparently as it possibly can,” Kane said.

A common issue addressed in the seminar was how entities could hold public meetings while acting under Gov. Brad Little’s gathering limitations and safety guidances. In March, one of the earliest executive orders set by Little was suspending the in-person requirement of open meetings.

While that provision expired in June, it created the issue of how public officials can comply with capacity limitations and legal code, Kane said.

Kane recommended entities conduct meetings online or through telecommunication outlets, have members of the body participate electronically, or provide overflow rooms in addition to the one physical location required under Idaho Code 74-2035.

“Maybe you’re not guaranteed to see the whites of a single board member’s eyes, but at least you know there is a physical location where the meeting is occurring,” Kane said.

With all options, Kane said it is best practice for entities to publish the gathering limitations before the meeting and provide instructions on how to access the forum, remote information, and the agenda.

“The worst possible spot for the government to be in under the pandemic and Open Meeting Law is to surprise the public when they show up to attend a meeting and learn that they can’t attend the way they wanted,” Kane said.

If access to a meeting’s video or audio becomes unavailable, the panel recommended the body to pause the conversation until the problem is resolved. Failing to stop the discussion has become one of the top issues the Attorney General’s Office has seen entities run into, Kane said.

“This is a really big deal, especially for reporters who are covering a meeting,” said Russell, a reporter for the Idaho Press. “That means we don’t have legal access to this meeting anymore, and in compliance with the Open Meeting Law, you have to provide that. I would urge boards and their staff to be cognizant of that.”

On hot-button issues, which have been plentiful during the pandemic, the panel suggested citizens sign up for testimony ahead of time — especially when a large gathering is expected.

Further, government entities should notify the public of meeting limitations, Kane said, like how long they will be allowed to speak, how many people will testify and if masks will be required.

“All of those things you want to have lined out before the meeting. If you try to do it after, it will be chaos and will very likely generate a complaint,” Kane said.

Since the governor’s executive order expired in June, most agencies have continued providing digital access to public meetings, aiding the public’s ability to observe from a safe distance.

“We may not get to get up on the stage or grab the mic, but we have a right to watch it, and that right needs to be preserved, even during the pandemic,” Russell said.

Due to the changes, Russell noted several agencies have built upon their telecommunication outlets, improving practices and bettering public access to information.

“I’d just like to put in a plug for the government to continue to stream all meetings, even after the pandemic,” she said. “While we were all forced into it by circumstances, it has made government more accessible to more people in Idaho, and that’s a good thing.”

Other recommendations made during the meeting:

  • Rotate in-person board members
  • Ensure broadcasting technology — cameras, microphones, recording technology — is working before and during a meeting
  • Preplan remote testimony applications, meeting links, chat functions, host controls, and action strategies for problems that may occur mid-program
  • If there are potential areas of concern, entities should consult their attorney
  • Stream meetings online
  • Post board meeting documents online in advance of the meeting for easy public access
  • Identify speakers during online communications — mainly when visual identification is not an option
  • Have minutes, or a recording, of the gathering available within a reasonable time afterward
  • Have staff available to monitor IT-related issues

Info: Idaho Code, Title 74 ; IDOG

From the Coeur d’Alene Press

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