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Government should not use pandemic as excuse to operate out of public eye

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has made everything more difficult and just plain different. It’s changed how people work, how people interact with others, even how people even spend time with their loved ones.

So, it’s understandable that it would affect those who are elected to be stewards of public money — borough councils, township boards of supervisors and public school boards to name a few — who have to be creative to safely conduct essential business without putting their members at unnecessary risk.

But that doesn’t mean the Sunshine Act — a law designed with you, the public, in mind — has ceased to be.

Even when operating virtually, government entities are still required to meet in a public manner that the public has been notified of three days in advance, whether they meet in person and broadcast the meeting or “meet” in an online setting like Zoom.

Normally that in and of itself would be troublesome because internet access and ownership of a device capable of connecting to it shouldn’t be a prerequesite for getting a say in how you’re governed and how your tax dollars are being spent.

And while most people may think older citizens and the Amish are among the groups most likely to not have such access, the truth is that by sheer geography, it’s difficult for many to have reliable internet at all no matter how badly they want it. Just ask our local school districts, who have had to explore online learning options, how inconsistent web access is around here.

But, even if we hold our nose and agree that it’s probably a temporary necessary evil to do it this way, that still doesn’t mean our elected officials should try to take advantage of the pandemic and do things they believe may be unpopular in a way that precludes the public from getting to weigh in.

We’ve seen several times over the past few months officials hastily move things along and end the online gathering before the public and members of the news media have the opportunity to ask questions. We’ve had to deal with technical difficulties — which, to be fair are not always the fault of the body in question — that make it difficult, if not impossible to hear what is being said. But that doesn’t give any government body the right to push through items of public importance without anyone who wants to being able to see it as it happens.

That doesn’t even begin to get into normal Sunshine Act issues like improper use of executive session to discuss what are clearly public matters under the law in a private setting — something we’ve been suspicious of but lack the ability to definitively prove.

Speaking of executive session abuse, another tendency that predates the pandemic is the tactic of holding a marathon executive session of several hours. The unspoken hope there is the public will grow tired of waiting and leave or that journalists on deadline will have to pull the plug on coverage to keep the paper from being late.

Executive session’s legitimate purpose is to discuss primarily personnel matters, pending litigation and a few other limited things; not to bore people into giving up.

There are penalties under Pennsylvania law for violating the Sunshine Act, but truthfully, it’s hard to prove in court the act has been violated and the prescribed penalties are often not much of a real deterrent.

Instead, the real check on their actions is you. If you feel your local officials are thumbing their noses at you by skirting, if not the letter, then at least the spirit of the Sunshine Act, the way to put a stop to it is to vote the offenders out of office.

If your local officials aren’t willing to be accountable to you at meetings, it’s incumbent upon you to hold them accountable at the ballot box.

It’s just one more reason to make sure you vote in every election.

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