By CJ Baker, Powell Tribune
Many parts of life just haven’t been as good as usual in recent weeks. We have all made due and adapted, often in wonderful and unexpected ways, but virtual birthday parties and drive-by graduation celebrations can’t compete with the real thing.
However, COVID-19 has also had the unexpected effect of increasing transparency within our branches of government. In some ways, even as public life has been restricted and facilities closed, public meetings and hearings have become more open and accessible than ever before.
We’ve been thankful for all the efforts that public agencies have been making to ensure their discussions are as transparent as possible.
There have been technical challenges and mess-ups, but on the whole, we believe it’s been easier than ever for local residents to track what their elected representatives are up to.
For instance, while members of the public are always welcome at Park County Commission meetings, the gatherings tend to be particularly difficult for many residents to attend. The meetings take place during the middle of a workday (the first three Tuesdays of the month) and they tend to start in the morning and run into mid-afternoon. Few people can take that kind of time to keep up with their commissioners.
But since the public health orders began shutting down public life, the county has been streaming its meetings via Skype and left the recordings online for on-demand viewing. The potential benefits for the public are obvious.
Consider, for example, a recent commission discussion on whether to move forward with creating a plan for new walking and biking paths around the City of Powell. Under normal circumstances, a Powell resident wanting to hear the debate would have to leave work, drive to Cody in the middle of a Tuesday morning, catch the 10-minute conversation, then head back home. Unless you’re the world’s most passionate walking and biking advocate, that’s not going to be worth your time.
However, with meetings now being recorded and archived, anyone can simply pull up the county website at their convenience, cue up that section of the meeting and be done with it in about 10 minutes.
Similar examples are popping up around the state. For instance, the federal court system in Wyoming has long been difficult for the Tribune to track, because, say, covering a hearing for a local defendant means making a 12-plus-hour round trip to the courthouse in Cheyenne or sometimes a seven-hour round trip to Casper. For a half-hour hearing, the math just doesn’t add up. Amid the pandemic, however, federal and local courts are allowing media and members of the public to simply call in and listen. Suddenly, hearings that were basically inaccessible are just a call away.
Then there’s the Wyoming Legislature, which recently took the unprecedented step of hosting its special session almost entirely online — and made it possible for anyone with an internet connection to watch.
Andrew Graham, a reporter for WyoFile, said the conference committee meetings that were held during the two-day special session — where lawmakers hash out differences between versions of bills passed by the House and Senate — were the most transparent of the five sessions he’s covered over the past four years.
In a change from recent sessions, each conference meeting was noticed and then recorded, where the public could watch the debates live or at a later time.
Certainly, all of this technology comes with costs in both time and money — and the demand for remote access to different government meetings is bound to vary from body to body. But there are strong indications that there is indeed a demand.
Consider the Park County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees, whose meetings typically draw just a handful of residents. After broadcasting and archiving their recent meetings on Facebook, the board’s April 28 meeting has drawn more than 800 views while a May 12 meeting had roughly 1,100 views. To be sure, Facebook’s view count is not an accurate representation of how many people are actually sitting down and watching an entire meeting — if a video auto plays in someone’s news feed for 3 or more seconds, that counts as a view — but it certainly shows a much wider audience than usual.
Of course, this is not to say that our local governments should give up their in-person meetings in favor of going remote. Nothing can fully replace face-to-face interaction, particularly when the goals include building relationships or resolving conflicts. But government officials should work to continue to make their meetings accessible online as COVID-19 restrictions ease.
As Graham put it on Twitter, “No one wants a virtual Legislature, but as things get back to normal I won’t forget that it was possible for the entire far-flung state to watch their Legislature deliberate.”
We hope our public officials — from lawmakers to commissioners and school board members — don’t forget that, either.