Rio Grande Valley residents probably have a lot to say about the global coronavirus pandemic, government officials’ reactions to it and restrictions on public behavior. Some might even have valuable ideas to offer their elected officials.
At least one Valley commission has taken steps to remain accountable to the public, and allow public comment during its meetings, even if the public can’t attend.
The Harlingen City Commission announced last week that while it was limiting the number of people who could attend meetings to 10 to meet federal guidelines, it was setting up a telephone system that would enable residents to participate in the public comments part of the meetings.
We applaud city officials for appreciating their continued responsibility to their constituents, and encourage other boards and commissions to take similar steps if they haven’t already.
To be sure, people can vent on the various social media platforms and even send messages to elected officials, but unless they receive a reply they don’t know who if anyone might read their comments.
While most government offices have been shut down and many operations halted, many operations need to be maintained. One of those functions includes regular meetings whenever possible. They still have to address issues that arise, including keeping up-to-date on how the pandemic is affecting their relative areas of jurisdiction.
Despite those reductions and restrictions, officials still need to abide by open government laws, even if the number of people allowed in any enclosed place can’t exceed 10.
As fate would have it, recent legislatures have made allowances for such restrictions, enabling government bodies to change venues and allow remote participation if necessary. The changes were made to address the kind of flooding we have seen in the South Texas and Houston areas in recent years, but they can help address current quarantine orders as well.
Technology allows organizations to livestream their proceedings over the internet through several forums, including YouTube, Facebook and Zoom. At the appropriate time, they can allow viewers to make their comments. Public entities can also set up phone or email banks through which people can send written comments. Staff members monitoring those banks can read the comments into the record at the appropriate time.
Extraordinary times like these can make public interaction more valuable; residents can provide feedback on officials’ policies and decrees, letting them know how they are being received and if they’re actually working. And who knows — someone might offer an idea that helps the officials respond or address an issue better under these unusual circumstances.
No, these aren’t normal times, but the will to keep things functioning, coupled with a little creativity, can go a long way toward maintaining public confidence and helping us get through these challenges. Keeping communication open with the public is a vital part of that effort.