Let’s continue to move toward virtual public meeting and courtroom access

By Greg LaRose

Source: Louisiana Illuminator

March 11, 2022

One of the silver linings of the pandemic has been its effect on public meetings and our legal system. Because of limitations on persons gathering in close proximity, legislative and regulatory bodies ranging from congressional committees to town councils have been forced to hold virtual meetings online. Courts have also held remote hearings, preventing the justice system in many jurisdictions from coming to a screeching halt as a result of COVID-19 precautions.

This has improved access to the process of governing, law-making and adjudication, especially for communities where not everyone can attend a meeting in person but can use a computer or smartphone to log into a live stream.

A good number of governmental entities already provided reliable online coverage of their proceedings, and others have since caught up with the times. The Louisiana Legislature, for example, has a top-notch website with thorough coverage of happenings at the State Capitol.

The Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR), a New Orleans-based nonpartisan policy analysis group, issued a report this week that notes the advances made in many segments of the bureaucratic realm and calls for more live streaming and archiving of online public meetings.

“As in-person public meetings resume, government entities can preserve the benefits of remote access with low-cost technology to livestream their meetings and provide an archive of video recordings online,” the report states.

We couldn’t agree more with this recommendation, which comes at a time where our federal government is making unprecedented investments in broadband infrastructure. With these resources properly marshaled, little should stand in the way of citizens who want to take part in public meetings but aren’t able to physically be there.

We also see room for improvement in how proceedings are conducted online, specifically with how the public gets to participate.

For the sake of fairness and brevity, some governmental bodies have chosen to curtail the public comment portions of their meetings or steer people toward submitting their comments via email. A clerk then has to read the comments so they can be part of the public record, which adds to the length of the meetings and often tests the stamina of the clerk’s vocal chords.

It would seem fairly simple to replicate the in-person method of public comment through the many virtual meeting platforms that have emerged. For people without online access who wish to participate, remote computer stations devoted to public meeting access could be established at library branches. For those without the means to attend a meeting in person, officials should seek out ways to bring government to them.

It’s hard to believe, given how we’ve all grown accustomed to conducting business virtually over the past two years, that there are still governmental entities that have not kept pace with the times and made the non-threatening leap into video conferencing.

In its report, BGR outs agencies in the New Orleans area that opted not to provide online access to their decision making that involves public tax dollars. The report points out how much tax revenue each entity handles to stress the need for greater transparency.

  • The Regional Transit Authority, which received $85.7 million in local tax revenues in 2019 to run New Orleans’ public transit system.
  • The New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, which received $65.3 million in 2019, primarily from hotel taxes.
  • The Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District, which received $65.2 million in hotel taxes in 2019 to operate the Caesars Superdome, the Smoothie King Center and other facilities.
  • The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West, which received $13.2 million in property taxes in 2019 for the flood protection systems on the west bank of Jefferson and Orleans parishes.

BGR also notes a 2013 Louisiana law requires taxing entities with appointed boards to “video or audio record, film or broadcast live all proceedings in a public meeting.” The four listed above told BGR they met that requirement before the pandemic by recording audio of their meetings and making it available to anyone who requested it.

There’s really no other way to describe that explanation other than a cop out, especially when the online option has been widely available and in use for quite some time.

We’re always going to be in favor of in-person public meetings and court hearings, but we also like to see our various levels of government take proactive steps to improve accessibility. We’re also hopeful that the pandemic will prod Louisiana’s court system to finally break down the walls that have limited virtual access.

Besides, I’m sure many of you have gotten used to wearing business attire only from the waist up.

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