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Pandemic’s next victim could be open government

Another consequence of the pandemic, not just here but across America, appears to be more obstacles to public oversight of government, and it’s not just because of long-term closures of public facilities other than by appointment such as City Hall.

Many government bodies have shifted in the past year to remote hearings while keeping members of the public at a distance.

It’s one thing for that distance to be prescribed for public health and safety, as in social distancing, but it is an obstacle when that distance becomes a convenient barrier between regular citizens and their elected officials, or when it makes it more difficult for ordinary people to access their government agencies and representatives.

In the long term, we believe it can be a dangerous obstacle to our democracy.

For instance, Arizona Republican Rep. John Kavanaugh this week spoke to the Associated Press about his concerns for relying on video testimony at hearings.

Before the pandemic, people would offer testimony in person.

Now, special interest groups may game the system by lining up scores of people to provide video testimony, and that could interfere with what ordinary people have to say, he said.

“It’s getting a grossly distorted representation of people’s views because certain organized groups totally dominate the input,” he said.

That’s something to consider, just as it’s time to consider that not everyone has a computer to remotely access hearings and meetings and to open the doors to our local public buildings.

Some doors already have been opened. Executive Plaza, for example, has signage reminding the public to wear masks and maintain social distance.

This past week — Sunshine Week — the Sun-Gazette was able to walk in without being stopped and questioned, head for the commissioners meeting room and sit down along with fewer than a dozen other masked and distanced people, including officials, who chose to attend Tuesday’s meeting. Other people accessed the meeting remotely.

At the top of the meeting, the commissioners spoke about the importance of public access to their government and state laws — the Sunshine Act and Right to Know — intended to assure government meetings are held in public and the right of the people to public information.

We must commend Commissioners Scott Metzger, Tony Mussare and Rick Mirabito for taking that step and for reminding us to “challenge” them, to ask the tough questions, to hold them accountable.

They are public servants and welcome the interaction with the public, all three said, statements we not only appreciate but respect.

That is the right attitude.

It is important that not only the free press but also residents be welcomed in to see their elected officials and ask questions. It is vital that government remain open and free of obstacles to access.

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