Des Moines Council members met remotely April 19, 2021 using Zoom-style technology. (Photo illustration by Iowa Capital Dispatch)
In my day job, I wear the hat of the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. This nonprofit, nonpartisan organization has been around for 40-plus years.
We advocate on behalf of the public and journalists for government transparency and accountability to the people of this state.
Periodically, I speak to groups of government employees and elected officials. One question that often comes up in those settings and in individual conversations with government leaders is some version of, “How are we doing?”
These days, this is what I tell them if they ask:
In the months after Covid became Public Enemy #1 three years ago, it was impressive how quickly local governments across Iowa and our state government scrambled to adapt to holding their public meetings when the public was hesitant to venture into potentially large gatherings in small-ish spaces.
Officials swiftly began making their meetings available through livestreaming on Facebook or on videoconferencing platforms like Zoom. Meeting notices and meeting agendas told the public how they could watch without having to be in the audience where the meetings originated.
But if anyone asks about my impressions now, I would tell them things have changed — and not always for the better.
Today, too many city councils, school boards and county boards of supervisors have turned their backs on the technology that got them through the early months of the pandemic, before vaccines eased people’s anxieties about being in close proximity with large numbers of people.
Today, too many government boards refuse to continue offering the Zoom capability that has become a part of everyday life for many Iowans.
This is ironic, because while some government officials have balked, parents and grandparents and their kids have embraced the long-distance gatherings with Zoom and FaceTime. This technology has made the face-to-face conversations possible from the comfort of their separate homes. They can listen to Mom’s piano playing or marvel at the antics of the family dog.
While there still are many city councils, school boards and boards of supervisors that continue to make their meetings available live for remote viewers, too many government bodies have signaled they don’t want to be bothered by making remote viewing possible.
These officials are not breaking any law by saying “no” to remote viewing requests. Iowa’s open meetings law does not require government boards to provide Zoom access. It only requires that meetings be open to the public.
Common sense should prevail — but too often it does not.
I spoke recently with a man who wanted to “Zoom” into a meeting of the local school board. “We don’t do that,” was the reply that ended the discussion.
Never mind that having their meetings available on Zoom would allow people with child-care responsibilities, or senior citizens, or the disabled, or the person without ready access to transportation to “attend” the meetings of their school board. Never mind that supervisors’ meetings typically are held during the day, when many people are at work and cannot get away to drop in on the supervisors’ meeting.
Getting more people engaged in their city council, school board or board of supervisors is just good government. I remind government leaders during my presentations that government does not belong to them. It belongs to the people. Government employees and officials are entrusted to act with the public’s best interests in mind.
During the pandemic, one member of the Grundy County Board of Supervisors was deployed to the Middle East with his Iowa National Guard unit. He was still able to “attend” the supervisors’ meetings using his laptop computer and Zoom. But once he returned home after his deployment ended, the Zoom meetings ended, too.
County officials insisted they were not set up to provide Zoom access from the supervisors’ small meeting room. Of course, it’s that same small meeting room where officials expect the public to compete for the eight or 10 chairs available for spectators.
The Grundy County board recently considered an ordinance regulating wind turbines. The local newspaper editor, as a courtesy, informed county officials that he intended to carry the public hearing on the ordinance live on the newspaper’s Facebook page.
Officials initially tried to stop his planned livestream. In the end, they relented — and several hundred people watched the hearing live or afterward.
That brings up another objection I hear from government officials when I mention the pluses of having meetings available via Zoom: There really are not many people who want to watch these meetings.
Iowa law does not require government boards to meet in public because those gatherings will be a big ratings blockbuster. The law says meetings shall be open to the public so the basis and rationale for boards’ decisions, as well as the decisions themselves, are easily accessible.
These days, many people believe that easily accessible means Zoom, as well as space for spectators in the meeting room.
If officials are not savvy enough to understand that, then maybe the Iowa Legislature needs to get involved next session and “help” officials see the problem with their misguided opposition to Zoom.
Randy Evans can be reached at [email protected].
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