Pandemic’s next victim could be open government
Another consequence of the pandemic, not just here but across America, appears to be more obstacles to public oversight of government, and it’s not just because of long-term closures of public facilities other than by appointment.
Many government bodies have shifted in the past year to remote hearings while keeping members of the public at a distance.
It’s one thing for that distance to be prescribed for public health and safety, as in social distancing, but it is an obstacle when that distance becomes a convenient barrier between regular citizens and their elected officials, or when it makes it more difficult for ordinary people to access their government agencies and representatives.
While remote participation in government offers the possibility to involve more people, it also can be a dangerous obstacle to our democracy.
For instance, Arizona Republican Rep. John Kavanaugh this week spoke to the Associated Press about his concerns for relying on video testimony at hearings. Before the pandemic, people would offer testimony in person.
Now, special interest groups may game the system by lining up scores of people to provide video testimony, and that could interfere with what ordinary people have to say, he said.
“It’s getting a grossly distorted representation of people’s views because certain organized groups totally dominate the input,” he said.
That’s something to consider, just as it’s time to consider that not everyone has a computer to remotely access hearings and meetings and to open the doors to our local public buildings.
Here in the Juniata Valley, we’ve faced the difficulty of reporting on local government bodies whose remote system has all the audio quality of a tin can and string. It’s hard to gauge reactions of elected officials when they are seated off camera in a Zoom meeting. It’s easier for government officials to duck questions when the person asking is not in the room, and can be deflected with the push of a button.
As noted, it can also benefit the public — when the government allows. For example, Wednesday’s hearing in Mifflin County related to the municipal authority controversy — a topic of great interest locally — was not streamed on the court’s YouTube channel, so only in-person attendance was possible.
It is important that not only the free press but also residents be welcomed in to see their elected officials and ask questions. It is vital that government remain open and free of obstacles to access.
Electronic communication can be used to aid that effort. It should not be used to deny it.