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Guest editorial: Let's keep working for more accessible, transparent meetings

Council meepting April 27 (copy)

Aiken Department of Public Safety Chief Charles Barrano, from left, City Manager Stuart Bedenbaugh and City Clerk Sara Rideout conduct the City Council meeting via Zoom to abide by social distancing guidelines. 

As businesses across South Carolina start to reopen and move toward a new normal, local governments will feel increased pressure to do the same. And they soon must figure out what that should look like, particularly when it comes to holding public meetings.

Since March, elected leaders in many cities, counties and towns have held mostly emergency meetings only, usually using remote technology such as Zoom or conference calls. This is an imperfect but understandable approach to tackling urgent matters while limiting the pandemic’s reach into their communities.

But they now face a new challenge. It’s clearly not yet safe to end social distancing, but as the weeks go by, local officials undoubtedly will feel growing pressure to address things that have been placed on the back burner – decisions on policies, spending and land use that have little or nothing to do with COVID-19. And they must find a new way to hold meetings that are inclusive, transparent and safe.

This problem flared first in Charleston, where City Council approved an ordinance allowing its zoning, planning and design boards to meet – and hold public hearings – remotely. We have joined preservation and other advocacy groups in questioning this step, and to the city’s credit, its staff is moving slowly as it tries to find the best approach.

Planning director Jacob Lindsey has vowed no such meetings will be held until the city can figure out how to make them as good as or better than the public meetings and hearings the city held before COVID-19 struck. It’s proving complicated, and planners still are working with technology staff and lawyers on the best way. “The board members should be able to interact with the public in a way that is conversational. They need to be able to see and hear the person,” Mr. Lindsey tells us. “Written comments ahead of time read into the record don’t meet the standard.”

Mount Pleasant is grappling with this too, as its Town Council directed staff to resume planning meetings using remote technology, but Barry Wolff, chairman of the town’s Board of Zoning Appeals, has pushed back. “Can we, as a town, make sure that every resident has the opportunity or ability to access a computer with a webcam to join a meeting as easily as they can walk into Town Hall?” his letter to town officials asked. “I fear we could somehow be opening ourselves up legally doing it this way.”

The best example might have been set in North Charleston, where City Council met in person last month to review the pandemic’s potential effect on city finances. Council members met in a coliseum conference room, much larger than their usual chambers, and kept at least 6 feet apart. Some officials wore masks; others didn’t, but the arrangement appeared as safe as possible, not unlike the in-person, socially distanced meetings being held by Gov. Henry McMaster’s accelerateSC task force.

Of course, we recognize local governments attempting to hold socially distanced, in-person meetings could quickly run into logistical problems if there’s something on their agendas that draws a crowd. Preparing for that eventuality will be more complicated and will involve more than masks, hand sanitizer dispensers and masking tape on the floor. But we believe it can be done. And for local councils, boards and commissions deciding non-emergency matters, it must be done.

While in-person meetings are preferable for many reasons, this pandemic still has the potential to help local governments operate in a more inclusive and transparent fashion. Remote conferencing technology is not all bad, and as cities and counties get better at it, they should consider maintaining it to complement (not replace) in-person meetings whenever possible.

This pandemic has taken much from us all already. As we move through and ultimately past its peak, we must do all we can to ensure our trust in our government does not fall victim, too.

— Post and Courier, Charleston

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