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Our opinion: Maintaining transparency in pandemic

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, government entities, which are required under the Sunshine Act to meet publicly at times and places advertised to the public in advance, have had to be creative to balance the public’s right to know with the rights of everyone — including the members of said entities — to not have to sacrifice their health and safety to participate in the governing process.

That means turning to “virtual” meetings using the internet and/or teleconferences.

But those are fraught with peril.

On teleconferences, it can be as simple as a bad connection that isn’t apparent to those outside the meeting room until the meeting has concluded or it may be the audio quality of the call itself that makes it difficult to follow what is happening or who is speaking without the aid of video. Either or both defeat the whole purpose of the Sunshine Act by allowing government agencies to take action without the public being able to realize what’s going on and give their input until it is too late.

When the government gets to act in secret, history has shown that very little good ever comes of it for Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Taxpayer.

When using a virtual meeting platform such as Zoom, it’s easier to follow along, although it’s admittedly not the same as being at an in-person meeting. Zoom has video and those “attending” the meeting can see a list of other attendees. That helps people much better understand what is happening and more closely approximates what happens in-person.

But, Zoom is not without its faults. As anyone whose work has led them to use the online meeting app can tell you, there always seems to be one or two people who don’t understand how the mute feature works — either they’re talking when they shouldn’t be or they can’t seem to figure out why no one can hear them when it finally is their turn to speak. It’s also dependent upon having enough internet bandwidth to run the program, something that is far from standard in many rural parts of the region, as our local educators have found out trying to conduct remote learning the past couple months.

But it’s still better than having the only option be a hard-to-understand conference call that basically amounts to a shoddy, garbled audio feed making it so no one is sure what is happening because only half of what is being said is understandable.

For that reason, for as long as meeting in-person continues to be too risky for all involved, we urge our government officials to use multiple methods to ensure people have options to observe and participate, as is their right as taxpayers. That includes having some type of live video so we, the people, can actually see what is happening, but also a phone option to give people who want to hear a chance to do so without requiring access to an internet connection as a condition of attendance.

We appreciate the efforts of government agencies to do what everyone has had to do in the past 10 months — make the best of an undesirable situation. Many of them have done just what we’ve outlined above, which their constituents should appreciate.

We also look forward to the day soon when we can all safely sit together in a room and not have to give potential virus transmission a second thought.

But until then, it’s incumbent upon our government to make it as easy as possible for the public to safely have input with the fewest restrictions possible.

We urge them to do the right thing by their constituents and increase virtual access options for everyone.

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