Public access to local government continues to adapt during pandemic

By: - June 27, 2021 11:00 am

Des Moines Council members met remotely April 19, 2021 using Zoom-style technology. (Photo illustration by Iowa Capital Dispatch)

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Iowa cities and other local governments had to find new ways for citizens to participate in public meetings that were largely held electronically.

As many Iowa cities prepare to return to in-person public meetings, public access is evolving again. In Des Moines, officials are looking at curtailing in-person public participation in the wake of volatile response to controversial issues.

Other Iowa cities are exploring several options, Iowa League of Cities Executive Director Alan Kemp said. Because different communities have different needs, he said some cities are eliminating online options, while others are trying to utilize what they’ve learned from the pandemic. 

“It’s sort of all over the board depending on the size of the city, the location, and it really depends on the interest of members of the community, whether or not cities are offering in person, online, or hybrid options,” he said.  

The Cedar Rapids City Council is one of many cities returning to all in-person meetings in July, public safety communications specialist for the city Greg Buelow said in an email to Iowa Capital Dispatch.

“Even prior to the pandemic, City Council meetings were broadcast on the City’s Facebook page to encourage citizen involvement and community awareness,” he said. “ … Public comment is always welcome by written correspondence if an individual or group can’t attend a Council meeting.”

The city will continue to encourage innovation to allow for more public input and participation, he said, but meetings will only be offered in person starting in July. 

Concerns about accessibility

Randy Evans
Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Freedom of Information Council.)

Online meetings allowed people to access local government meetings from the comfort of their homes or offices, Randy Evans, the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said. 

“Sometimes people don’t like to drive at night or there are limited transportation options or people have young children to care for,” he said. “So it’s not possible for everyone to attend in-person meetings. I think during the pandemic we’ve seen the remote option is one governments ought to look at continuing to offer.” 

Some important meetings occur during business hours, Evans said, meaning Iowans have limited access to local or county governments. He said not allowing more accessible options could lead to a more stressed relationship between governments and communities.

Addressing in-person meeting hurdles

The return to in-person meetings has come with new challenges in some cities. In May, the Des Moines City Council approved rules that only allowed 20 people to provide public comment due to time restrictions. The rule came after some explosive online meetings focused on police reform that drew hundreds of speakers.

A month later, at the first Des Moines City Council in-person meeting in over a year, the meeting was suspended due to community members chanting. On June 14, protesters held a “Defund DMPD” banner while chanting “let us speak.” This led to the council suspending the meeting to meet virtually two days later to discuss additional agenda items. 

Evans said he is nervous the Iowa Legislature will look to constrain open meeting laws and public comment following the protest.

“There is a danger that the Legislature will be open to revisions of the open meetings law that will harm the important role that public meetings have played for the last 50 years,” he said. “And that could change government transparency to its citizens.”

The Des Moines City Council meets again on June 28, when they will consider an amendment to the rules of conduct for in-person meetings. The amendment will allow for written requests to remove agenda items and will end oral requests. 

The existing rules of conduct will now be posted in City Hall during meetings. In a press release, Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie said “it is imperative that we be able to conduct the important business of the city during Council meetings. For those who wish to disrupt and infringe upon the rights of others, there will be consequences.”

City Manager Scott Sanders told the Des Moines Register if protests like those on June 14 return, citizens will receive citations for interfering with meetings.

Citations are common, Kemp said, because citizens are not allowed to interject at city meetings. He said if an interruption like the one earlier this month happened prior to COVID, the meeting would’ve been postponed until the next in-person event. 

“The technology is valuable, and we now know how to use it,” he said. “At least with virtual options, we can transition to a virtual meeting if there are disruptions.” 

Evans said the changes to Des Moines’s public comment rules are unworkable and he hopes other cities don’t take up the new rules because of the limitations it places on citizens.

“The council owes it to the people of Des Moines to create a means where citizens can express their views and discuss their concerns about the conduct of police officers,” he said. “And I worry about the response at city and state levels in response to the problems at this one meeting.”

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Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt

Eleanor Hildebrandt is a senior at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism and mass communication and global health studies, with a minor in German. She is a managing editor at the university newspaper, the Daily Iowan, and has served as an reporter intern at Iowa Capital Dispatch.