Commentary

Why offer remote access to public meetings after the pandemic? It’s common sense.

May 4, 2021 10:30 am

Des Moines Council members met remotely April 19, 2021. (Photo illustration by Iowa Capital Dispatch)

People like to talk about what the law says. And in Iowa, the law has a lot to say.

Just look at the Iowa Code. It now fills eight volumes and costs $295 for a complete set.

But common sense costs nothing — although the 18th century thinker Voltaire once observed, “Common sense is not so common.”

Two examples involving government in Iowa in recent weeks clearly show the Frenchman was onto something.

For about 13 months, most state and local government boards and councils have held “virtual” meetings because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With government buildings closed, the public has been able to “attend” these meetings using Zoom, Facebook, YouTube or similar remote access applications.

The internet has allowed Iowans to monitor issues coming before their city councils, school boards and county boards of supervisors. When an important topic has come up, people have still been able to address their elected officials.

That is good. After all, the government belongs to the people. It does not belong to the members of government boards or people working for these government entities.

But now that COVID vaccines are available to all adults, government buildings are reopening and some boards want to pull the plug on remote access to their meetings. That is not good.

While Iowa’s public meetings law does not require remote access to be provided, the law also does not prohibit government from making access to meetings available to the public using this technology.

More about this in a moment.

A second example:

Iowa’s public meetings law says people have a right to attend meetings of state and local government boards, except when a few specific topics are discussed. But there is a frequent point of confusion: While citizens must be allowed to attend, nothing in the law requires boards to allow members of the public to speak at the meetings.

That is entirely up to the board, council or commission. And this is where common sense should come in.

One of the hottest issues in Des Moines for the past 12 months, and in many other U.S. cities, too, has been the way police handled protests following the death of George Floyd.

In Des Moines, there are sharp divisions locally. On one side are people who defend law enforcement. On the other side are those who see what they consider to be racial injustice and unwarranted violence by police.

The issue came to a head in April when the public learned that two officers who will be teaching de-escalation techniques to fellow cops were themselves involved in incidents that led to the city paying about $1 million to settle lawsuits citizens brought against the city.

The most egregious case involved a man from Lime Springs, who was intentionally dropped to the pavement face-first after his arms were handcuffed behind his back.

The Des Moines council sets aside 30 minutes at each meeting for public comments. Many boards around Iowa have similar policies and limit speakers to a few minutes each.

When more people want to speak than can be accommodated in the allotted time, boards often take speakers in the order they sign up or draw names from a hat to determine who gets to speak.

When an issue of considerable controversy exists, boards sometimes schedule a special meeting so everyone can be accommodated.

But the Des Moines council did not do that. Instead, they divided the 30-minute time block among the 71 people who signed up to speak. The result — with each speaker receiving 25 seconds — made a mockery of citizen participation in their government.

Yes, the public meetings law does not require the council let anyone speak. But Voltaire’s admonition should guide Des Moines’ mayor and council members to use common sense to find a way to make citizen input a meaningful part of city government.

These officials are paid well for their service. The mayor receives $52,000 annually, each council member receives $26,000, and the city manager who works for them is paid $245,000.

Likewise, government boards that are thinking about ending remote access to their meetings should remember what that guy Voltaire said.

The pandemic opened the eyes of government officials across Iowa about ways to better serve the citizens by making meetings more readily available and accessible — especially for people who are ill or disabled, or those who do not have transportation available, or who have child care obligations or a schedule conflict.

Meetings are not open to the public because everyone in town is going to attend. They are open to the public because that is an important way for local taxpayers to monitor what their government boards and councils are doing.

Providing remote access via a home computer or smart phone is one more way of engaging with local taxpayers, and that ought to be a good enough reason to continue making remote access available.

It’s just common sense.

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Randy Evans
Randy Evans

Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a 43-year-old nonprofit education and advocacy organization that works for improved government transparency and citizen accountability. He can be reached at [email protected]

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