With the sun setting on another year’s celebration of open government and public information, it is illuminative to reflect on how important unfettered access to public records and government leaders has been in this pandemic year.
We have relied on daily updates and data releases from Denton County Public Health to best gauge how our response to COVID-19 is faring: Are we trending downward in the number of active cases and hospitalization rates? Are our immunization rates in line with those of neighboring counties and the state at large?
As well, we have used regular reports from area school districts to show which schools are having a tougher time battling infections among students and staff, empowering parents as they make critical decisions on whether to enroll their children in in-person or remote learning.
And throughout stay-at-home orders and mandated social distancing, our public bodies of government have continued to meet remotely, providing livestreams for the public to follow debate and decisions as they are made.
But as the nation and state have begun to make more pronounced steps toward “normalcy” as we knew it, with Texas lifting its mandate on face coverings and social distancing, most of these public bodies have returned to having true public meetings, in which members gather in person and the public and media are invited to attend.
The results have been sometimes chaotic, as seen this past week with the Argyle ISD board meeting in which parents shouted down many of the speakers, but most boards recognize the overriding importance of encouraging public discourse and feedback as critical decisions are being made on such topics as mask wearing and the allocation of federal stimulus dollars.
Most have gone this route or at least begun moving in this direction — with the clear exception of the Denton City Council.
The Denton County Commissioners Court this past week returned to regular, in-person meetings at the County Courthouse on the Square, with both the public and media invited to attend. Masks were encouraged for those in attendance, but not required, and those who preferred to participate remotely were afforded that option.
All area school districts have either returned to regular, in-person meetings with the public and media invited or are meeting in person with limited public attendance or remote public attendance due to increased COVID-19 caseloads in that district.
But the Denton City Council has continued to meet remotely, with no in-person attendance from either the public or media. The only reasons that have been given so far for continuing to meet in the same manner as when the pandemic first began is that Gov. Abbott’s “Temporary” Suspension of Open Meetings Laws issued over a year ago, on March 16, 2020, remains in effect.
“It’s really hard to say when that will change,” city spokesperson Ryan Adams said when asked about the city’s continued remote meeting format. “It is a discussion we plan to have with the council.”
We understand the continued need to remain vigilant against an often-unpredictable pandemic — which is far from being over. In fact, as recently reported by The Associated Press, a year after COVID-19 triggered government shutdowns and crowd limitations, more public bodies than ever are livestreaming their meetings for anyone to watch from a computer, television or smartphone — with the only avenue for public input at some city council meetings being a written comment.
But what we don’t understand, with all other area bodies already moving toward resuming in-person public meetings, is why the discussion with the City Council on a timeline for returning to true public forums has not already taken place. As the other public bodies recognize, while the governor’s order remains in effect, it does not ban open meetings but rather allows them to be suspended as a choice of the board.
Just as the boards may choose not to hold in-person meetings, they also are permitted to make the opposite choice — as most have done.
Absent any reasons given for continuing to meet remotely — infection rates are trending downward while vaccination numbers are growing — we are left to believe that the City Council simply has grown too accustomed to this new format of limited public interaction and virtual silos around its members.
That’s a shame — and one the council owes us to address. At the very least, the council needs to lay out its end game, of what thresholds and parameters must be met in order for the board to move toward being more publicly accessible. As was stated in an earlier Sunshine Week essay, “Open government is good government or, at the very least, it is better government.”
And we also encourage the governor, in light of his decision to open up the rest of the state, to revisit his “temporary” order suspending the state’s robust Open Meetings Act.
A year later, if it’s good enough for businesses and private enterprises to be fully open, it’s not too much to ask for movement toward the same for our government.