The coronavirus pandemic might have changed forever the way people think about public meetings.
In the days before COVID-19, a constituent concerned about the actions of a public board would have to find out when and where that board was meeting and show up at the gathering in person.
Now, under an emergency order signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb, governmental bodies in communities throughout the state have been meeting online, and lots of folks have been keeping track of what’s going on simply by clicking a link on their computers.
The change was essential in the fight against a deadly virus, but it might continue, at least on a limited basis, as a matter of convenience.
Two measures, Senate Bill 369 and House Bill 1437, would permit local entities to adopt policies allowing members to join meetings virtually as long as those entities also made the same option available to the general public.
The sponsor of one of those bills, Republican state Sen. Linda Rogers of Granger, says the idea is to give board members more flexibility, but not a free pass.
“I look at it as if someone’s elected to be a county council or commissioner that they can’t just go to Florida for four months and participate virtually,” she told those gathered for a recent hearing of the Senate Local Government Committee.
Her bill would restrict board members from attending more than two consecutive meetings remotely except in limited circumstances such as illness or military service.
Committee Chairman Sen. James Buck, a Kokomo Republican, said at the same hearing he planned to add a provision that would require at least half of all board members to be physically present for every meeting.
Open government advocates such as the Hoosier State Press Association hope to get similar language added to the bill pending in the House. After all, they say, board members should not be allowed to dodge the public on controversial issues simply by taking their deliberations online.
The Senate measure has the support of Luke Britt, the state’s public access counselor. Britt says his office every year fields hundreds of complaints accusing various entities of trying to dodge open meetings and public records requirements, but he told the Senate committee his office had received fewer than 10 complaints about virtual meetings since the emergency order went into effect.
In some respects, the move toward online public meetings was probably inevitable, and lawmakers are wise to embrace it.
They must also ensure, though, that they have safeguards in place to protect public access. These boards carry out the public’s business, after all, and they should do it out in the open for all to see.