If local officials want to discuss COVID-19 policy in their counties, cities/towns or schools, those conversations must occur in public.
It’s not only right for constituents and media have the opportunity to listen in so they can be informed about decision-making that could impact their day-to-day lives, it’s also the law.
Recently we’ve seen attempts by local governments to try to take their COVID-19 conversations behind closed doors, where they can discuss what they will (or won’t) do regarding the ongoing surge of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the community.
We saw this on Aug. 19 when Fremont Community Schools improperly called an emergency executive session to discuss COVID policy and literally escorted Herald Republican reporters out of the building in order to conduct their secret meeting.
KPC Media Group has filed a formal complaint with the Indiana Public Access Counselor’s Office for this alleged violation of the state’s Open Door Law and KPC is awaiting an advisory opinion from that office, which we fully expect will determine that yes, Fremont broke the law regarding open meetings.
Also, this past week, News Sun staff halted the Noble County Commissioners from having an improper closed-door session with county health officer Dr. Terry Gaff that was originally scheduled for Friday, with the commissioners attempting to cite a code exception for “discussion of the assessment, design, and implementation of school safety and security measures, plans, and systems.”
After being challenged that Noble County government oversees no schools and after pointing to previous guidance from the Public Access Counselor’s Office that this exception does not apply to discussions of COVID policy, the county scrapped the meetings.
In an informal opinion issued Oct. 1, 2020, Public Access Counselor Luke Britt — an appointee of former Gov. Mike Pence who has continued serving under Gov. Eric Holcomb and is tasked with interpreting and advising government and the public on Indiana public access laws — wrote about the closed-door meeting exception, which was created for matters like discussions of security cameras, alarm systems and active shooter response plans, not generalized policy discussion:
“While serious and not to be dismissed, COVID-19 is a passive threat insofar as public knowledge of public health plans will not give COVID a heads-up to target a child or a building. The virus, thankfully, does not have eyes and ears. The harm comes from the virus itself and not from knowledge of mitigation efforts,” Britt wrote. “It is difficult to imagine a scenario wherein those plans – or safety considerations generally — would be compromised if discussions were held during a public meeting.”
We understand and appreciate that COVID-19 is a hot-button issue and any discussion, even without any formal decision, is likely to be controversial.
We need to look no further afield than local school board meetings where some people have shown up both to plead for schools to re-enact mask mandates, while others have come to argue just the opposite.
But it is precisely because these matters are controversial and have broad impact on the public that those conversations must be held in a public setting, where, at the minimum, citizens can attend to listen to the conversation their representatives are having.
It is clear that some local officials would rather not face that pressure and instead would seek to take the discussion behind closed doors.
We’re not going to let them.
As your local newspaper, we here at KPC Media Group hold Open Door Law, public records requests and the public’s right to know as a core tenet of our profession.
The law is overt about what can be discussed in closed door executive sessions and any topic not expressly cited in that code must be conducted in public session.
While local government boards do not have to take public comments, Open Door Law dictates that the public, which includes media members, must be allowed to attend and observe proceedings of any public meeting.
We recognize that the current culture makes any decision regarding COVID-19 a lose-lose, as some segment of the population will end up displeased regardless of what is decided.
But governments officials are elected to serve their constituents, aim to represent their interests and further the public good.
Elected leaders can accomplish none of those things by trying to hide their conversations on COVID from the citizenry.
OUR VIEW is written on a rotating basis by Grace Housholder, Andy Barrand, Michael Marturello and Steve Garbacz. We welcome readers’ comments.