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Editorial: McMaster should bar remote council meetings for non-emergency matters

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This is not how open, participatory government is supposed to work.

On Monday,  the Charleston County School District spaced out chairs in the board room so about 20 members of the public could listen in while Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait and school board Chairman Eric Mack convened a telephone conference call with the disembodied voices of board members who stayed away to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

The board approved bond authorizations, funds transfers, some student appeals — all items that have nothing to do with COVID-19, or anything else that strikes us as essential or urgent — as The Post and Courier’s Jenna Schiferl and a TV reporter looked on; apparently, and understandably, members of the public either didn’t know they could attend or didn’t feel safe doing so.

That evening, hours after Berkeley County closed public access to most county facilities and asked employees to work from home, County Council members proceeded by phone with their scheduled monthly meeting, where they approved their own raft of routine business that had nothing to do with the pandemic: $9 million worth of purchases and contracts and a “roundabout enhancement” effort by the Daniel Island Garden Club. The public’s only way to listen in was via audio livestream on the county’s Facebook page.

Then Tuesday, the Charleston City Council scheduled a phone-in meeting to impose tighter restrictions on public movement — and to take up several pages worth of zoning, spending and other matters that have nothing to do with the coronavirus.

And we were left wondering: What part of “you don’t do any sort of nonessential government when the public can’t participate” do local governments not understand?

Just as we as individuals can’t simply relocate our workplaces to our kitchen tables and go on with the rest of our lives as if nothing has changed, government can’t limit public access and go on with its business as usual. Or at least it shouldn’t be able to.

It’s one thing for a single member of a public body to participate by phone; it’s another thing entirely for most or all of the members to be somewhere other than where the public can offer feedback — even if that’s only by applauding or frowning — while a debate is taking place.

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Just as leaving our homes for anything other than essential business endangers the public health, holding government meetings to conduct anything other than essential and urgent business when the public can’t be physically present endangers the very essence of a free society: open, participatory government.

In the long term, that is as dangerous as a public-health threat.

As we argued a week ago, South Carolina’s elected bodies need to suspend action on anything that isn’t urgent until it’s safe to let the public back in.

The Legislature has done that, at least temporarily. Unfortunately, local governments and school boards are notorious for violating the state’s open-meetings law; to expect them to go beyond compliance and use good sense could be a bridge too far.

State law grants the governor extraordinary authority in a state of emergency, including the ability to “compel performance by elected and appointed state, county, and municipal officials and employees of the emergency duties and functions assigned them in the State Emergency Plan or by Executive Order.”

If that means Gov. Henry McMaster can order the Department of Revenue to allow restaurants to extend their pick-up services to include alcoholic beverages, then surely it means he can order public bodies to refrain from meeting remotely for actions that aren’t urgent. Because of the spotty good sense of elected officials when it comes to operating in full sunlight, he should do so.

After the emergency has passed, the Legislature should consider some permanent limits on what sort of business local governments, school boards and state boards and commissions can conduct remotely.

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