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Region’s officials experiment with new approaches to transparency

Social distancing has become the norm nationwide, with businesses shutting down or curtailing operations and people staying home to avoid contact with others.

Meanwhile, many governmental bodies at the national, state and local levels continue to operate, if not exactly as they have traditionally done so.

Last week, some state Senate and House lawmakers opted to stay out of Harrisburg and instead conduct business from their home districts, including the casting of votes on bills.

“I thought it worked out really well,” state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Loyalsock Township, said.

He noted the important pieces of legislation that needed passed for addressing the coronavirus.

The virtual legislative sessions may not have ever happened, he added, if not for COVID-19.

It all came as the result of a temporary suspension of rules under which the state Legislature normally operates.

The question is: Can or should other government bodies conduct their business via the internet, including the state’s many municipalities and other governmental bodies?

“Some say they already have the authority to do it,” Yaw said. “We are looking into some things. The issue we have to protect across the board is the public’s right to know and transparency.”

But there may not be a “one-size-fits-all” approach for conducting virtual meetings.

Lycoming County commissioners now livestream their public meetings, allowing the public to sit in on the public sessions from the comfort of their own homes.

On Tuesday, two of the three county commissioners attended their work session at the Executive Plaza, while Commissioner Rick Mirabito opted to stay away. But that didn’t stop him from taking part in the meeting and voting on matters that came before the three-person board.

Mirabito said his choice to not physically attend the meeting sent the message that social distancing is an important directive to follow during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I thought it was good to practice what we preach,” he said. “I was very proud to do livestreaming. It gave the public a chance to listen and ask questions.”

Mirabito said he has not heard from any local municipalities looking to conduct their own virtual meetings.

“I would ask anyone at the municipal level to reach out,” he said.

Yaw noted that it’s not that simple for some communities to livestream their meetings.

Many municipalities across the state, including in Lycoming County, are in remote rural areas without broadband and internet capabilities.

“Loyalsock Township, for example, is much more urban than, say, McIntyre Township,” he said. “We change the law that says, well you can do these things remotely, but will they work in more rural areas?”

Federal lawmakers were asked if laws are in place about continued local governance during a declared emergency, and if so, should those laws be amended? They were also asked if the federal government should support state and small local governments to be able to financially implement modern technology in areas without it.

“We need to do everything we can to help state and local governments continue to function and provide essential services to residents,” U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, said. “This is why I fought for $150 billion in funding to state and local governments as well as over $4 billion in Community Development Block Grants for states and localities in the most recent coronavirus response legislation. I will continue to push for additional funding as we continue to confront this crisis. As the situation evolves, we will need to continue to examine ways in which we can ensure that local governments are able to continue their efforts.”

U.S. Rep. Fred Keller, R-Kreamer, did not specifically address the question, but did release the following statement: “As it pertains to our Congressional office, our team is continuing to work to serve our constituents. The offices for Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District remain open and operational as an essential function of government. We are exercising CDC-recommended social distancing guidelines and limiting contact. As such, during this mitigation period, we are asking constituents to call or email their concerns rather than visit the office.”

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