When Gov. Eric Holcomb signed an executive order in March that loosened up Indiana’s Open Door Law, many local government units took advantage of the ability to conduct remote, or virtual, meetings in order to protect their members and the public from the raging COVID-19 pandemic.
Before Holcomb’s order, with some exceptions — such as airport commissions and charter school agencies that have members spread across the state — all government boards were required to meet in person, under one roof. At times board members haven’t been present for meetings and have listened in over phone lines, but technically they were not allowed to participate — for example, they could not vote in these meetings.
That all changed with the pandemic. With no uniformity, government boards from town councils to boards of commissioners began meeting remotely via conference call using applications such as Zoom or Google Meet.
These worked fine, to some degree. However, although Holcomb has all but reopened the state, many boards are still employing these apps. Some are using hybrids — meeting in public with the virtual option available for those who choose — while others have reverted to in-person meetings, but with distancing and masks.
When the move to virtual meetings started, it didn’t always work out well. And in some instances, it still isn’t working well. There were times when Zoom meetings, for example, were hacked and the content that appeared on screens was pornographic.
That led to government agencies not publicizing codes for accessing meetings. The public has to send an email or make a phone call to get the code in order to attend a meeting. We still publish meeting notices in our pages with instructions on getting virtual meeting codes. Phone-in meetings are less restrictive.
At times, access has been limited. Instead of knowing that the airport board meets on the second Tuesday of the month in a hangar, you now look in the paper or go to a website to find out how to get a code to attend a meeting online as opposed to just driving to the airport and walking in the front door of the hangar.
If you don’t plan your attendance at a meeting, you might not have access.
On the other hand, many people may have attended meetings because they could do so from the comfort of home or an office. A virtual meeting might be more convenient than driving across town or across the county in order to hear the latest about a building proposal or what next year’s tax rate might be.
It has been a balancing act that will very likely become a topic for the Legislature to consider when it convenes in January. Some say it has been positive to move to virtual meetings. Others say some of the intangibles from live, in-person meetings are missing from virtual meetings.
“If you’re not in the room, having to look the public in the eye when there are critical votes, is there as much accountability to be had?” Steve Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association asked in a news story published in the Bloomington Herald-Times.
Also, at the conclusion of a virtual meeting, the public might not be able to engage with board members to learn more about the impact of a decision. People seeking clarification on a matter might have difficulty doing so.
If the Legislature does ponder changes to the way meetings are conducted once the pandemic ends and Holcomb’s order is lifted, it should make sure transparency remains a top priority. If, for example, a meeting is being held via Zoom, the board should be required to provide access to the keeper of the code through public advertising in the local newspaper. And newspapers, in turn, should do their very best at making these ads as visible as possible.
We are almost certain to see changes in how government meets in the future, post pandemic. We hope that the new way of governing, if you will, becomes more transparent rather than less.
OUR VIEW is written on a rotating basis by Dave Kurtz, Grace Housholder, Michael Marturello and Steve Garbacz. Publisher Terry Housholder is also a member of the editorial board. We welcome readers’ comments.