The coronavirus has caused widespread disruption to everyday life, but public bodies have managed to muddle through the pandemic thanks in large part to loosened rules about electronic meetings that allow members to gather virtually.
This has been a vital and important change, but it should be a temporary one. As with online learning versus in-person classroom instruction, the business of government is best conducted in spaces where the public can safely gather, observe and participate, and Virginia should continue to insist on such openness going forward.
The Freedom of Information Advisory Council, the legislative body tasked with reviewing and writing laws about government transparency, will meet today to discuss H.B. 321, introduced by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria.
That bill proposes some changes to the state’s rules governing electronic meetings, allowing members of government boards to attend virtually more often. Specifically, it makes accommodations for members who are “unable to attend due to a serious medical condition of an immediate family member that prevents the member’s physical attendance” by allowing them to participate through video- or teleconference.
It would limit such participation to no more than two meetings per calendar year or 10% of meetings in a given year, whichever is greater. The aim is to allow some flexibility for physical attendance while affording members an opportunity to deal with medical emergencies.
Leave it there, and it would be a solution — albeit an imperfect one — to a problem made more apparent and acute by the pandemic. “Imperfect” because nothing is an ideal substitute for in-person meetings in public spaces that take place in full view of the governed.
It’s been clear throughout this crisis that electronic meetings are still fraught with problems. Some members of public bodies are, like many of their fellow citizens, technologically challenged, and citizens who wish to participate in hearings, public meetings and the like may struggle to do so in an online forum.
Rules of order and procedure are more difficult to enforce. Information can be garbled in transmission. IT problems are commonplace. And constructive interaction between officials and citizens is nearly impossible in these settings.
These may be obstacles we must endure as a deadly virus makes in-person meetings a threat to health and safety. But they cannot be part of “the new normal” when the pandemic ebbs and Virginia returns to business as usual.
There is reasonable concern that Levin’s bill may inadvertently open the door to a proliferation of online-only meetings, a change in law that would affect city councils, school boards and boards of supervisors as it would the General Assembly and its committees.
There is a push for the law to be expanded beyond what Levin proposes, for public bodies to have greater latitude to meet online. It could mean members never have to share the same physical space with their colleagues or members of the public.
That would be deeply problematic. It’s antithetic to the idea of a government that should be open and accountable to the people, and it increases the likelihood of malfeasance and secrecy, intended or not.
It’s why good government advocates and watchdog groups such as the Virginia Coalition for Open Government have asked the Freedom of Information Advisory Council to tap the breaks on these changes and take thorough, deliberate measure of their necessity.
Since the commonwealth continues to operate under revised public meeting guidelines issued early in the pandemic by Attorney General Mark Herring, there doesn’t seem to be reason to rush. Better that the council gets this right the first time than it blows a hole in the state’s open meeting law that would later require repair.
Meetings online are a serviceable bandage for our present predicament, but they shouldn’t become the standard for conducting the people’s business. The FOIA Council should act with care.
Disclosure: Opinion Editor Brian Colligan serves on the Virginia Coalition for Open Government Board of Directors.
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