As the coronavirus pandemic worsens in the United States, we’ve started to see some pushback against the necessary restrictions being put in place to help contain the threat, or at least “flatten the curve.” Letters and columns, social media posts and blog entries warn that the Trump administration is gearing up to use the national emergency to trample our rights and turn the nation into a dictatorship.
While the president’s demonstrated admiration for heavy-handed, authoritarian leaders is generally reason for concern, there appears to be little indication that any such scheme is underway — as appears to be the case in Hungary — as the U.S. government tries to deal with a difficult situation. We see no conspiracy in requiring some businesses to close and telling people to observe proper distancing when they do have to venture from home. Given the circumstances, these are reasonable rules that everyone — even those who don’t like to be told what to do, because “I feel fine” — ought to follow willingly.
Also a reasonable move is the governor’s emergency order allowing local government bodies to conduct business remotely, where necessary. Keeping city councilors, commissioners, town selectmen, school, planning and zoning board members, etc., apart is as sound a policy as asking restaurants not to have sit-down service.
There is a concern, however, that the constitutional requirement that such boards and committees conduct their business openly and transparently might fall victim to this new reality. If members of the public aren’t able to attend a meeting held virtually, how can they keep tabs on what members are doing? How can they have a say if public hearings aren’t viable?
It’s not that we think very many elected officials in the region are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of essentially closed-door sessions in which they could take inappropriate actions. Rather, it seems like a good idea to point out — amidst a crisis that’s left many unsure of exactly what an “emergency” means — the state’s constitutional mandate that the public has a right to know how its government works remains in effect.
Gov. Chris Sununu, in issuing his emergency order, also issued a statement of guidance regarding how best to follow it. While Executive Order 12 allows meetings to occur without everyone being in the same place, the governor took pains to note that RSA 91-A, which governs right-to-know issues, still requires meetings to be warned — that is, advance notice to be made public — and that public access must be accommodated.
The order notes:
“… the requirement in RSA 91-A:2, III (c), that each part of a meeting of a public body be audible or otherwise discernible to the public ‘at the location specified in the meeting notice as the location of the meeting,’ is waived for the duration of the State of Emergency declared in Executive Order 2020-04 so long as the public body:
“a) Provides public access to the meeting by telephone, with additional access possibilities by video or other electronic means;
“b) Provides public notice of the necessary information for accessing the meeting;
“c) Provides a mechanism for the public to alert the public body during the meeting if there are problems with access; and
“d) Adjourns the meeting if the public is unable to access the meeting.”
Sununu, along with Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, also made clear that if a meeting is held by phone, members of the public must be given a number by which they can access the call. Minutes must be kept and all votes must be made by roll call.
Having meetings held by phone or Zoom or Skype isn’t ideal for the public. But in strange times, it must be recognized that everyone is doing what they can. With people generally having more on their minds than the proceedings of local government boards, it would be unsurprising to see that even if officials adhere to the governor’s order less attention is paid to what those boards are up to.
We’d recommend, then, that such meetings, via video or phone, be recorded for later access by the public. We also hope officials make use of cable TV or other means to reach as wide an audience live as possible.
In times of crisis, it’s especially important the public know what its appointed and elected officials are doing, and that voters have confidence those officials are continuing to act in the best interest of the community at large.