In the midst of panic, when rumors can rule the day, government transparency is more important than ever. So are safety and the expediency of government operations in a crisis.
Action Monday by Gov. Greg Abbott showed those two things need not be mutually exclusive.
Abbott granted a request from the Texas Attorney General to suspend some open-meeting statutes to temporarily allow governmental bodies to meet by telephone or video conference instead of the usual requirement that they be physically present at any meeting. That allows government to work for the people and reduce in-person meetings at the same time.
Some important things to note in the action Abbott took on Monday:
• Members of the public still are entitled to address the school board, council or other governmental body during any telephone or videoconference meeting.
• The entity must still post written notice that gives the public a way to participate remotely, such as a toll-free dial-in number.
• The meeting still must have a posted agenda that describes what will be discussed and what items could result in a vote.
• The governmental body must make a recording of the meeting and release that to the public.
“Even as the State of Texas takes precautionary measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, we also have a responsibility to maintain government transparency,” Abbott said in a prepared statement. “With today’s action, Texas is reducing non-essential in-person contact for a limited period, while ensuring that state and local government entities continue to work to fulfill necessary functions and with full transparency for the people of Texas. I urge state and local officials to do their part to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by avoiding meetings that bring people into large group settings.”
If officials are not holding phone or video meetings, all open meetings requirements apply, Abbott said.
Sweeny ISD in Brazoria County already has posted its intent to have a meeting by conference call. It’s probably inevitable that other governmental bodies will do the same before the crisis ends.
Citing the law, an agenda addition posted Monday reads, “the meeting of the Sweeny ISD board on March 17, 2020, may be held by phone conference in light of the imminent threat to public safety posed by the COVID-19 virus. The board room at 1310 N. Elm, Sweeny, will remain open to the public during this meeting.”
This week we observe Sunshine Week, the annual national initiative meant to shine a light on the importance of open government. It’s also an unprecedented time, with widespread school closures and cancellations in the name of public health.
We hope residents will heed warnings to avoid groups of people as much as possible as we work to stop the spread of COVID-19. They also should expect that as government works for them, it operates in the light of day. The temporary change Abbott approved Monday allows for both.
• Yvonne Mintz
Editor’s note: Mintz is editor and publisher of The Facts, the daily newspaper serving Brazoria County and a sister publication of The Daily News.