Dillon: How To Keep An Eye on Government During COVID-19 Emergency
Among the everyday adaptations of our socially distanced lives: Zooming with the City Council, from the safety of your couch.
Gradually and sometimes comically, local governments across Illinois are figuring out how to conduct their business in public despite a statewide stay-at-home order.
Concern over the spread of COVID-19 has closed many public buildings and forced citizens and government officials to find new ways to interact.
For many, that means learning to connect over the Internet or conference call, via Facebook Live, WebEx, Zoom, Skype and the like. For others, it means new rules for physical settings: Council members in one room, spaced several feet apart, for example, while members of the public, also carefully spaced, listen to audio in another room. The Shelby County Board held its April 8 meeting at a picnic pavilion at Lake Shelbyville, surrounded by residents in strategically placed lawn chairs.
It might be tempting ― and surely more convenient ― to skip those meetings for now or to handle necessary public business in private. The coronavirus has interrupted all sorts of government services, after all. Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s emergency order allows governments to pause non-essential functions, prioritizing health and safety in a time of limited staffing and resources.
But transparency is more important than ever when governments invoke extraordinary authority as they have now. Citizens have a right to know what their elected representatives are doing on their behalf, and to contribute their voices to those decisions.
Pritzker’s emergency order suspended parts of the state Open Meetings Act so that public bodies could convene and take action to keep governments running. The governor waived rules that require officials to be physically present at government meetings and that limit remote participation.
Local governments looking for guidance on how to comply with the law can find it on the Illinois Attorney General’s web site. The office houses the state’s Public Access Counselor, which mediates disputes about OMA and the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
The memo points out that the governor’s action does not negate OMA’s requirements that meetings must be “open and convenient” to the public and that citizens have an opportunity to comment. Other important points:
• Governments are obligated to post notice of these electronic gatherings, and should include instructions on how to access them. That means including call-in number, link or login information. (A how-to guide would be helpful, too.)
• In-person meetings should be postponed if possible. If urgent business must be conducted, use a larger room (or more than one room) to allow for appropriate distancing.
• Depending on the format, public comment can be challenging. If live participation isn’t possible, written or emailed remarks can be collected in advance and read aloud during the meeting. Some platforms allow for real-time comments.
• Record meetings when possible and post online afterward.
A few more best practices not covered on the AG’s web site: Begin the meeting with a roll call that includes those participating remotely. Take extra care to identify speakers in a virtual setting. When technical problems arise, resist the temptation to finish up the meeting with the public offline. Suspend it until access can be restored.
The good news is there are plenty of free or low-cost conference calling services or web meeting hosts. The bad news is everyone is a first-timer once. There’s a lot of connecting, disconnecting and reconnecting, a lot of cross-talk and background noise, a lot of unintelligible garble followed by demands to repeat the question.
By the time the emergency order expires, citizens and public servants will have plenty of practice muting and unmuting their microphones. It’s a good skill to master.
One day those crowded public gatherings will be safe again — but as before, they won’t always be convenient. Remote participation can make public meetings more accessible after life returns to normal, too.
This column was published in the State Journal-Register.