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The Future of Remote Public Meetings Rests with Good Policy

Before COVID-19, many governments wouldn't dream of having remote proceedings. That reality has changed. What guardrails should be in place to prevent abuse of tech-driven meetings?

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Now that remote public proceedings have become more common after COVID-19, an observation has been made: remote meetings can compromise the transparency of government and the ability of the public to participate.

This observation lies at the heart of a statement written by California Common Cause Executive Director Jonathan Mehta Stein. The statement, titled “Government Transparency in an Emergency,” describes the risks involved with remote meetings and principles that might be followed in order to mitigate those risks. The hope is for state and local governments to develop policies with these issues in mind. 

“We need guardrails in place to ensure that governing doesn’t move further out of public view,” Stein said in an interview with Government Technology. “We recognize that government needs flexibility in this moment to respond to the crisis or the multiple crises going on in America today. But in order for government to act effectively, there has to be accountability, and there has to be transparency.”

One concern revolves around the sudden necessity of remote proceedings. Remote proceedings are being held regularly today, which has opened the door for votes “that are sometimes scheduled late at night or on weekends, enabling lawmakers to avoid public scrutiny,” according to the statement from California Common Cause. 

In other cases, a lack of transparency could result from the technical limitations rather than dubious intentions. 

“We’re finding that many cities and counties are not stopping proceedings when their online streams encounter problems,” Stein said. “So they’re creating gaps where governing is happening in the dark.”

Another concern relates to opportunities for citizens to participate in public meetings.

Reports from Massachusetts and Florida, for instance, highlight the difficulties that some residents face when trying to attend remote meetings. Stein said his organization encourages governments to provide an in-person site and multiple remote access points that can account for the technological divides in the United States. 

John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said his organization, along with a local American Civil Liberties Union chapter, sent a list of recommendations to Gov. Gina Raimondo after Raimondo suspended an open-meetings regulation that prevents Rhode Island bodies from holding remote meetings. Raimondo then distributed those recommendations to officials. 

“Members should always appear on camera,” Marion said. “They should take votes by roll calls so public members can know who is voting which way. If the connection is dropped, they should pause the meeting until they can re-establish the remote connection. All of those are best practices that we were encouraging.”

Marion added that the guidelines developed by Common Cause were informed by public meeting laws across all 50 states. 

In the future, remote proceedings should only be held when they’re “essential,” Stein said. While Stein understands the excitement of some officials who have realized that they can indeed utilize technology for meetings, he believes a “high bar” should be set for their use. 

Mike Sarasti, CIO and director of technology and innovation for Miami, said he agrees with the spirit of what Common Cause is calling for. At the same time, he’s not sure whether it’s realistic to expect governments to hold remote public meetings only when an emergency occurs. 

In fact, Sarasti believes remote proceedings can enhance transparency and public participation if they’re planned and executed the right way. 

“It’s actually really cool from a civic engagement and civic participation perspective,” Sarasti said. “You see a lot of faces who normally wouldn’t come to a public meeting.”

Marion also recognized the potential for increased participation at remote meetings. 

“We’ve seen in some instances an explosion in public participation at public meetings because we’ve lowered the cost of entry for the public,” Marion said. “Instead of having to get a babysitter and drive down to city hall and find parking near city hall and wait three hours through a city council meeting for public comment, you can leave your laptop open on the kitchen counter and give a comment as you’re making dinner.”

However, Marion pointed out that the relative ease of remote access can also raise questions about preferential treatment toward citizens, especially once social distancing orders are lifted. 

“If somebody participates remotely from the next city over, should they be put at the back of the line compared to the citizens of the city who actually showed up at the meeting?” Marion said. “We don’t have a position on it. It’s an issue that has been raised by several people.”

For Sarasti, it’s normal at Miami City Commission meetings to see participation from those who may not live in Miami. He said someone could have an investment in Miami while not living there. 

While Sarasti holds that he’s more of an observer and that people other than him will ultimately make the policy calls, he said remote proceedings can increase efficiency. Before social distancing, it was not unusual for a Miami City Commission meeting to last from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Now, meetings are ending in the early afternoon, even though public comments can still take hours to get through. 

“There’s no ‘walk up to the podium’ time, which believe it or not, adds up,” Sarasti said. 

In the statement from California Common Cause, Stein cites cybersecurity as a major concern, especially for “local governments that lack well-resourced IT infrastructures and/or in situations where lawmakers are permitted to participate from home using home internet systems.” Indeed, “zoombombing” has entered the public lexicon in a big way.

As a final observation, Sarasti mentioned that a variety of staff, from attorneys to web people to communications folks, can better ensure that government covers the bases for remote proceedings. 

“If you’re not willing to commit to the staffing to make sure transparency can happen, then yeah, you probably should limit what you cover in these meetings,” Sarasti said. 

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.