Don’t let the ‘new normal’ leave the public out of public business

A socially distanced news conference: Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks on March 20, 2020, accompanied by sign-language interpreter Tailyn Kaster of Deaf Services Unlimited, left. (Pool photo courtesy of The Des Moines Register)

The news that the State Capitol was closing to the public due to the coronavirus outbreak was just one in a stream of emails from government agencies over the past two weeks announcing they would be conducting the people’s business while temporarily ending the people’s access to public offices.

Social distancing is important right now to stem the spread of this virus. It’s prudent and maybe even necessary to limit the face-to-face interactions that essential government workers have with members of the public. Closing public spaces encourages people to stay home and it also protects people who are performing vital public functions.

And yet, there’s reason for concern about how much of this distancing will become part of the “new normal” after this crisis has run its course. It’s time-consuming and expensive to maintain public access to public offices, after all.

For example, the Iowa Board of Regents announced that it will suspend the public comment period for its April 1 meeting, which will be held electronically and livestreamed on the Iowa Board of Regents website. Members of the public were invited to email their comments to the board, which has in the past preferred to keep opinionated members of the public at a distance. The board from 2013 to 2017 tried to substitute video-recorded hearings for in-person public comments during board meetings. For some reason, people didn’t think talking to a camera was an adequate substitute for addressing board members directly.

The Iowa Transportation Commission is also holding an electronic meeting on April 13 and 14 in Waterloo, but it is arranging time for public comments via conference call, a DOT news release stated. So apparently, it’s not an impossible task to maintain social distancing while allowing public participation.

People applying for unemployment benefits could not visit the Iowa Workforce Development offices, so had to either complete the application online or by phone. The surge in unemployment filings meant long wait times, state officials acknowledged. It should be noted that the previous governor, Terry Branstad, shut down Workforce Development offices around the state in 2011, and then in 2017, dumped the kiosks the department had set up around the state to maintain public access. Might there not be a temptation to now finish the job he started, and move the entire unemployment benefit process to online and phone access only?

Before suspending their legislative session for 30 days, House and Senate leaders told reporters they would keep working on priority legislation while they were away. Asked how they would keep the public informed of these deliberations, they had no specifics. They have yet to make any public announcements.

Similar measures are happening around the country, with governors issuing orders allowing state and local public bodies to meet electronically. In Indiana, Gov. Eric Holcomb not only suspended the requirement for public participation in meetings, he temporarily suspended the public’s ability to request access to public records in person or by phone, and also state agencies’ deadline for responding to records requests. A friend of mine who reports for The Fulcrum, a nonpartisan, nonprofit government reform organization, has a good story about this if you want to read more.

Some of the “temporary” actions taken in the name of COVID-19 also may serve some partisan or special-interest agendas. The governor pleased the state’s grocers, for example, by suspending the returns of bottles and cans ─ something the industry has worked for many years to accomplish through legislation. Environmental regulations and fines and nursing-home inspections have been curtailed. The public needs to be engaged, lest these actions become permanent by default. Abortions are halted, along with other “nonessential” and “elective” medical procedures. Some may applaud that move, but emergency fiats are not the way to accomplish political goals.

There have been some bright spots in Iowa. The Iowa Public Information Board has been proactive in advising government subdivisions about how to conduct its business electronically while adhering to the state’s open meetings and records requirements.

The governor’s office deserves credit for its efforts to communicate. Reynolds has gone from a schedule of mostly-weekly news conferences to daily media briefings that the public can also view via livestream. She could be delegating these daily updates to her agency heads and she’s instead taking ownership. That’s commendable, no matter what people think of her approach to addressing issues like business closures and social-distancing measures.

However, social distancing has taken a toll here, too. The governor’s office has limited the number of reporters who can participate in the news conferences in person to a small print and broadcast pool. Some reporters who aren’t part of the pool can call in via a conference line to ask questions or rely on pool reporters to ask followups. However, some online media outlets have complained about limited access.

Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, also praised the daily briefings but raised concern about limits on media access.

“The governor’s daily press briefings have been a positive step at a time when the public is hungering for accurate, authoritative information,” he said in an email. “I am disappointed, however, that some journalists have been refused access to the Q&A phone line that is being used by journalists to ask questions when they are unable to get into the briefing. Having more media outlets able to ask questions would better serve the people of Iowa ─ even if the governor sees them as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative.’ This is no time for the governor to restrict such access.

“I think about various crises from the past during my many decades in the news business, and I cannot think of other occasions when the governor of Iowa was picking and choosing whose questions would be answered by state officials,” Evans said.

Evans said he also has had reports of county health officials refusing comment when asked about the number of coronavirus tests that have been administered in the county.  “Some county health officials have claimed they don’t have access to that information. Others have claimed that because of HIPPA restrictions, they are not allowed to release that fact,” Evans said. “At a time of such widespread anxiety about the health and safety of people’s friends and relatives, government officials ─ and officials of privately hospitals, too ─ are doing a tremendous disservice to local citizens when they block the release of such an important detail.”

We can’t predict what our “new normal” will be when we get past this crisis. What we can do is insist on “news normal” ─ maintaining news media access. This will help us all to ensure that the people’s business will never exclude the people.