Minimizing the spread of COVID-19 has not only presented new and unique challenges for our health care system and businesses, but our government as well. Being able to maintain a functioning government during a crisis is a baseline requirement of our democracy, but confronting these new challenges with a steady hand guided by full disclosure for public good is just as essential.
“As people are asked to make increasing sacrifices in their daily lives for the greater good of public health, the legitimacy of government decision-making requires a renewed commitment to transparency,” the National Freedom of Information Coalition wrote in a statement last week.
No level of government is immune from these issues, but they can be most critical in cities and counties, traditionally where in-person interactions — permits, paperwork, public meetings — help keep the wheels of government turning. Technology can help, but it’s not a perfect solution.
Charleston City Council has been conducting emergency meetings on Zoom every day at 5:30 p.m. for a couple of weeks now. With each council member relegated to a little box on screen, the meetings seem fast and efficient, but state law empowers local governments to pass emergency orders quickly after just one reading. Coupled with the format’s limited capability for public participation (emails, voicemails, and letters collected 24 hours in advance), there are lots of chances for citizens to be left behind.
But the city has seemingly done its best to adapt. On Monday, council will consider a measure that will allow some planning, zoning, design, and architectural review meetings to take place virtually. Local leaders are being forced to think creatively about how to preserve public debate of packed town meetings. However, some remain rightfully concerned the meetings could allow projects to move through the process quickly without much notice. “This plan would allow developers to move ahead while the rest of us hunker down,” the Coastal Conservation League wrote in an email to supporters last week.
Local leaders must remember their obligations to accountability when crafting a solution to allow residents a chance for public input — the meetings are just as much for residents as they are for applicants.
At the state level, questions about what our leaders are doing in response to the pandemic have led to unending criticism of Gov. Henry McMaster and others. As “smart” and “gentle” as McMaster believes South Carolinians are, they are also human and need leadership they can trust or the full knowledge of the situation at hand to allay their fears.
More data has begun to trickle from DHEC, but McMaster and others would be helped by the proactive release of all public health information. If data does not exist, the public should know that too.
There’s a temptation in times of crisis for leaders to circle the wagons and decide what to do in spite of the principles of government openness and transparency. Rather than succumb to those bad habits, our leaders should be bold in efforts to embrace the benefits of open government to save lives and truly serve the people.
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