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Open Meetings Act during COVID-19

The Open Meetings Act is one of the cornerstones of democracy. It is what forces politicians and government officials to conduct major decision making and discussion in full view of the public and with public input. It is what allows for citizens to have a say in how they are governed on days they aren’t casting a vote.

The OMA says that anyone, regardless of who they are or where they live, is allowed to attend most government council, board, committee or commission meetings without condition. It gives reporters (and everyone else) the right to listen and it gives people the right to speak directly to their government. It requires advance, public notice of upcoming meetings, and it requires records of the meeting be kept available for review.

The exceptions are narrow – you can be ejected from a meeting for disturbing the peace, and the basic order of the meeting should be observed so that business can be conducted. At certain times, the public may be asked to wait outside while sensitive topics are discussed. Most of those excepted topics relate to personnel issues that could breach individual and personal privacy, or negotiations that if public could weaken the government body’s bargaining position and cost the taxpayers significant money.

Of course, most citizens don’t regularly attend these meetings. People have busy schedules and home lives or may lack transportation. They may show up when something important to them is on the agenda, or when they have something to complain about, but often people don’t even know when these meetings happen, despite legally-required notices. That’s one reason reporters in a community are important, to monitor those meetings, even when they’re uninteresting.

Under executive order 2020-15, issued due to the COVID-19 pandemic, those meetings no longer need to physically happen. They can simply be electronic conferences, as long as the public is still allowed to participate and notice is made prominently on the government website.

This is great for some people. They no longer have to drive to attend the meeting, or even be in town. They can mute their microphone and munch potato chips or make dinner while keeping tabs on their local government directly, without the need for any intermediary. They can contribute easily, and observe without social pressure.

However, for others, it throws up barriers. People unfamiliar with newer technology might not be able to navigate a Zoom or Hangouts meeting as well as a physical one. Many seniors don’t type as well as younger generations, who were all taught in school. Some people simply don’t have access to the equipment, with no need for a laptop or smartphone. They may not even have internet service available in the area they live. While many video conferencing services allow for phones to call in, that can potentially get expensive for someone without the internet, and not everyone can hear on a phone or distinguish voices well that way.

So, at least temporarily, the idea of an open meeting has changed to exclude some and include others. The question is, when we emerge from our coronavirus chrysalis, will we simply return to the old system, or will we create a blended system?

While a meeting protocol that shuns the electronic world is fast becoming archaic in the 21st century, there is something about meeting in person that the digital world just can’t reproduce yet. Meeting in person creates a sense of community that I haven’t discovered in video or phone conferences.

Ideally, we would blend the old-style physical meetings with some of the digital literacy we’ve learned through this pandemic, streaming video of in-person meetings and making notices and documents available online.

Although technology can bring us together in tough times, our need for community ties and shared experience shows itself clearly when people attempt the complex and sometimes frustrating process of self-governance.

Joshua Vissers holds a B.A. in multimedia journalism and is associate editor at the Daily Mining Gazette. Send questions to jvissers@mininggazette.com.

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