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Rhode Island Considers Remote Participation in Gov Meetings

Out of the pandemic came an innovation that a coalition of open-government groups is begging Gov. Dan McKee to reinstate: the opportunity for the public to both watch and participate in government remotely.

Rhode Island
(TNS) — Out of the pandemic came one innovation that a coalition of open-government groups is begging Gov. Dan McKee to reinstate: the opportunity for the Rhode Island public to both watch their government in action — and to participate — remotely.

A Journal query on Twitter about this mid-pandemic, emergency practice sparked a flood of responses, such as these:

While it lasted, "I was able to participate in my local government and make dinner, fe[e]d the dog and be present in my house after working all day. In 2021 it should not be one or the other," wrote @KendraMuenter.

"As the chair of a subcommittee in NK ... who also has a 14mo kid who can't get vaxxed, meeting in person has completely iced our ability to meet and make any progress,'' Tweeted Eric J. Humphrey.

The last in a string of executive orders suspending in-person meeting requirements lapsed two months ago at a time that, the coalition urging reinstatement acknowledges, it "seemed quite reasonable based on the progress that had been made in taming the Covid-19 pandemic."

Delta variant prompts renewed safety concerns

But circumstances have changed, specifically: "the troubling increase in infections, hospitalizations and deaths caused by the Covid-19 Delta variant,'' the coalition wrote McKee this week.

Since the last executive order lapsed in July, "some public bodies have had difficulty getting in-person quorums, and more importantly, some members of the public have been reluctant to attend in-person meetings,'' the group said.

"While some public bodies have continued to provide remote access since the return to in-person meetings, many have not. In those instances, members of the public face a choice between their health and their ability to participate in our democracy."

The plea represents a turnaround for some members of the coalition that includes representatives of the ACLU of Rhode Island, the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island, ACCESS/RI; Common Cause RI and the New England First Amendment Coalition.

In their letter, the coalition members said they still firmly believe "that some measure of accountability is lost when public bodies do not meet in person and the public cannot engage with them directly."

"It was for this reason that we opposed a bill that was proposed in the General Assembly this session that would have allowed public bodies to continue to meet remotely for more than two years.

"However, in these last two months, the Delta variant has upended the expectations that many of us had in seeing in-person indoor gatherings return to normal,'' the group said.

"In light of the current status of the pandemic, we therefore urge you to reinstate the executive order allowing for remote meetings and requiring livestreaming and remote public participation," they wrote.

Conn. and Mass. allowing remote meetings through spring 2022

There has been no response to the plea from McKee, or from the leaders of Rhode Island's part-time legislature, who have the power to reconvene their chambers to pass legislation to again allow remote meetings, as state legislatures in both Connecticut and Massachusetts have done through the spring of 2022.

House spokesman Larry Berman noted the House passed a version in late June. The Senate never took it up.

The situation varies from one government entity to another. For example, the Rhode Island legislature still livestreams meetings but no longer allows remote participation by the public or its members.

The Ethics Commission has returned to meeting in-person only, though Jason Gramitt, the executive director, told The Journal on Friday: " The Ethics Commission would welcome the ability to return to virtual meetings when needed, especially now during this rise of the COVID-19 variants."

But, "To do so, it would require either an executive order from the governor or an amendment of the Open Meetings Act from the General Assembly,'' he said.

Courts 'highly encouraged' to use virtual hearings

In the state courts, spokesman Craig Berke said, the general public has been permitted back into courthouses since Sept. 7, under mask-wearing and social-distancing rules.

But " Chief Justice [Paul] Suttell in an executive order in July 'highly encouraged' the use of remote hearings as much as possible," Berke said.

"Many court proceedings have returned to in-person, but many hearings are being held remotely. In fact, he noted, " Superior Court Judge Melissa Darigan held a full day of oral arguments [on Thursday] live-streamed from her courtroom in the lawsuit over firefighter/EMTs being vaccinated as ordered by the Health Department."

In the firefighters case, he said, " Judge Darigan used her discretion knowing that the case affected a lot of people and there was heightened public interest, so she made the hearing more accessible to keep physical attendance manageable without overcrowding her courtroom."

Shortcomings of remote technology

Berke said the judiciary is currently "looking at the continued use of remote technology or remote proceedings but at the moment the discretion is being left to the individual courts and judges."

There are some drawbacks, as noted by Paul Dion, chief of the state office of revenue analysis ,who has served on several boards.

"In an in-person setting you can see the body language of the public, gauge better the reaction of the people to statements made, etc. A passionate group can influence the consideration of an agenda item."

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