Calling it “a matter of great urgency,” ACCESS/RI, a coalition of open government organizations, has called on Governor McKee to reinstate an executive order that was in effect throughout the Covid pandemic until this past June, allowing for remote meetings of public bodies while requiring livestreaming and remote public participation.
In a letter sent to the Governor today, the coalition – which includes the ACLU of RI, Common Cause RI, the RI Press Association, and the New England First Amendment Coalition – pressed for the order as a health and safety measure necessary to ensure meaningful public participation in the political process. Rhode Island currently has more Covid cases per capita than any other state, placing medically vulnerable residents and many others at great risk in attending meetings.
Excerpts from the coalition’s letter appear below:
“This is a time when Rhode Island government at the state and local level faces numerous challenges – as well as numerous opportunities brought on by the substantial infusion of federal funds for multi-varied purposes. The need for public oversight of the activities of public bodies is at its zenith. Yet many members of the public with a strong interest in watching and participating in government meetings find themselves, for genuine health and safety reasons, shut out of the process as public bodies grapple with those challenges and opportunities. Democracy suffers when public bodies can meet without either the oversight or input that public attendance and participation can provide.
“… Particularly for the state’s large elderly and immunocompromised population, even being masked and fully vaccinated is no guarantee of protection in crowded meetings in indoor settings. Indeed, those types of meetings are precisely the ones we would expect the state to be discouraging, not promoting, at this stage of the pandemic.
“Your latest, lengthy executive order is a pointed reminder that we remain in a state of emergency. . . Under the circumstances, we trust you will agree that an executive order is both warranted and needed to ensure that the goal of the Open Meetings Act – to safeguard the ability of residents to ‘be advised of and aware of the performance of public officials and the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy’ – is met in reality, not just theory.”
The letter concluded by stating: “The discouraging and admittedly tiring length of time that we have all had to deal with the effects of Covid demands more, not less, attention to ensuring public oversight of the democratic process.”
While some public bodies have continued offering remote meeting access to the public, most have not.