INDIANAPOLIS – COVID-19 has changed the way governing bodies of public agencies in Indiana, from city councils to school boards, conduct business. Allowing public meetings to take place virtually has provided benefits, but it has also led to concerns about whether the practice should be allowed to continue after the pandemic ends.
“If you’re not in the room, having to look the public in the eye when there are critical votes, is there as much accountability to be had?” said Steve Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association.
Gov. Eric Holcomb signed an executive order in March that modified Indiana’s public access laws in response to the pandemic. Among the changes was a provision allowing governing bodies of all public agencies in the state to conduct meetings virtually during the COVID-19 emergency.
Prior to the executive order, only governing board members of certain types of public agencies could call in to participate and vote remotely, said Luke Britt, Indiana Public Access Counselor, who works under the Indiana attorney general and assists with matters related to transparency in government. The exceptions were limited to agencies that typically had board members based in different parts of the state, such as charter school boards and airport authorities.
“Local agencies never had that ability,” Britt said. “They were explicitly excluded.”
The change was intended to limit opportunities for COVID-19 to spread by keeping people physically distant. It has also made some things more convenient.
Public meetings conducted virtually must be streamed live online so members of the public can watch. Eliminating the need to jump in a car and drive somewhere might make people more inclined to view the proceedings of a particular agency’s board.
“I’ve even heard good things from reporters,” Britt said. “They can watch the school board or the city council without having to leave the house.”
But Britt conceded watching online eliminates the ability to approach someone in-person to ask questions. Key agreed.
“If I’m in a room with you during a meeting, it’s easier to get your attention and ask the follow-up questions that need to be asked,” he said. “If it’s electronic, and you don’t want to talk, you don’t have to respond to my phone call.”
Unequal access to reliable technology can also be an issue. A spotty WiFi connection might result in someone missing a meaningful discussion of a controversial issue. Governing bodies are not obligated to record virtual meetings, although the public can, if they have the ability to do so, Britt said.
The executive order does require a roll-call vote when meetings are conducted virtually. This makes it clear how each board member voted, something that can be difficult to discern when multiple people speak during a video conference.
One of Britt’s biggest concerns, if virtual meetings continue to be allowed, is absentee board members. He thinks there should be some set percentage of in-person participation required so people aren’t legislating remotely.
“Someone shouldn’t be able to call in and raise your taxes over the phone,” he said. “I think that could be a bad look.”
Key not only worries about the absence of public pressure when dozens of people physically show up for a contentious decision, but also who might be in the room influencing someone voting remotely.
It’s unclear whether temporary changes implemented during the COVID-19 emergency will result in permanent modifications to the state’s Open Door Law. Britt said he has heard talk but has not seen any proposals drafted.
“It’s all conversations,” he said. “It could fizzle out.”
Key said much will depend on the legislature’s restrictions due to the pandemic and what bills take priority in the next session. But if there are no limits on the number of bills or subject matter, he expects a push for permanent changes.
“I do foresee local government people thinking this is much easier for them,” Key said. “They can stay at home, eat dinner, cut out drive time and they don’t have to be in the room with people who are extremely upset over a proposal.”
Incorporating more technology into public meetings wouldn’t be all bad, Key continued. Live streaming local meetings, the way the state legislature streams committee meetings and floor discussions, could allow more people to watch. But the benefits of convenience must be weighed against the potential risks.
“Democracy depends on an informed citizenry,” Key said. “The Open Door Law provides the public — or through the eyes of local media — an opportunity to see how elected officials are acting.”