Surely, nobody is grateful that the nation and the world are mired in a pandemic, but there have been some occasional silver linings that have been welcome. One has been a new understanding of the capabilities information technology can bring to work and education.
Many businesses have discovered that remote working arrangements they previously thought inconceivable are a viable and, in many cases, desirable option for their operations, and the full ramifications for the “workplace” as we used to know it are only just beginning to be understood. And secondary school and higher education institutions have found that, even if a fully virtual classroom environment is challenging and sometimes counterproductive, the availability of effective remote technology can also expand learning opportunities.
Similarly, the pandemic has made clear that remote technology can effectively promote much more extensive openness and participation in government proceedings. In this region alone, many communities and schools have found that they can successfully conduct the public’s business and promote citizen participation by making their hearing available remotely. As a result, taxpayers and other residents have discovered watching and speaking at public meetings have been easier and more convenient.
The same has been even more the case for the Legislature. Early in the pandemic, the Statehouse was closed and committee meetings and hearings were conducted remotely. This certainly was a wise step for the health and safety of legislators and hearing witnesses. But it also made sense for the convenience of participants, sparing many long travel to Concord, and also promoting public “attendance” of committee business.
As for the full legislative sessions, use of remote technology has been a challenge, particularly in the case of the 400-member House, where Republican leadership this session under Speaker Sherman Packard has cited its unwieldy numbers in ruling out any remote participation by legislators. And, following the expiration of the state-of-emergency decrees, which permitted public bodies to suspend physical-presence quorum requirements, Packard has proclaimed the House will not change its rules and will require members to be present at all full sessions and committee meetings.
Packard’s rulings have led several Democratic representatives, including Paul Berch of Westmoreland, to bring suit in federal court alleging that failure to allow remote participation, at least for members with sound medical concerns, violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. Packard won the first round in District Court, but the Democrats prevailed in an appeal to a panel of 1st Circuit Court of Appeals judges. Round 3 — before the full 1st Circuit — is underway. And, unless the party leaders can strike a compromise — don’t hold your breath — the next ruling will most likely be appealed further.
Separate from that tussle, though, it was heartening to learn from a recent N.H. Bulletin report, citing representatives from Packard’s office, that there are discussions underway to renew live-streaming of House committee meetings. Facilitating greater public access as legislative business is conducted is always desirable, and restoring live-streaming will enable New Hampshirites from all corners of the state to view committee hearings without also having to tack on substantial driving time. And, given that working residents are likely unable to break from work commitments to view live-streaming in real time, the recordings should remain publicly available afterward.
We have observed here before that party leaders should find a way to agree on a reasonable accommodation using remote technology for legislators who have good-faith health concerns. Regrettably, the matter appears likely to remain in the courts. Regardless of the outcome, though, there’s no reason the advances of remote technology that the pandemic has made clear shouldn’t be deployed in the Legislature to make public viewing of the conduct of the people’s business accessible both live and afterward.