As we settle into the sixth month of the pandemic, we have seen how life does manage to go on, albeit with a lot of changes. Masks, hand sanitizers, social distancing, and other tools to combat the virus have become standard operating procedure.
So, too, government has continued to function — town and city offices are closed to the public, or have very limited access. Staffs work from home or on alternating days. Bid openings have been held in the front courtyard of the Whiteville City Hall. Mass emails have replaced telephone calls for some communities. At the same time, the water and sewer keep working, the trash still goes away, and fire, rescue and police respond when there is a 911 call.
Government has a responsibility to continue to provide services to the taxpayer, while protecting the workers and elected official who provide those services. Many of our communities have done an outstanding job of rising to the challenge, technological challenges aside. Whiteville, for example, has gone to a virtual format that allows real-time communications between citizens and the council, as well as online reports from department heads and others that allow the council to ask questions and make suggestions. Lake Waccamaw faced a major challenge with a public hearing earlier this summer, but the commissioners and staff there made sure that citizens could text, appear on video, email or even telephone the mayor and go on speaker phone if no other methods were working. Other towns have simply relied on social distancing, or moving meetings to larger venues.
The Columbus County Commissioners have faced the same challenges as other bodies of government, but have fallen short in several areas. While it is unarguable that the commissioners’ chamber can’t be safely packed like it often was pre-COVID, there is sufficient room to allow speakers to address the board. If calling in one or two people at a time still makes some uncomfortable in terms of possible virus transmission, then a video system should be put in place to allow citizens to speak to the elected board, as well as department heads making requests to or being questioned by the board.
The technology is there; the low tech options are also there.
The UNC School of Governments explicitly told elected boards when the pandemic started that they could have some flexibility on their adherence to the governor’s executive orders. That wasn’t a blank check to endanger members of the boards, staffs or citizenry, but it wasn’t a license to meet behind closed doors, either.
Technology is great, but as has often been seen, it can fail at the worst possible times. Whether it’s an overload of local Internet infrastructure, a loss of audio, or a computer error at the source doesn’t matter — the job of the elected official is to be open and serve the electorate. Actions concerning the business of the citizens should be readily available and above board, and the public should be able to be informed and thus create a reasoned response when one is needed. In terms of doing county business, it’s difficult to ask questions of a county employee, contractor, specialist or interested party via text message and email, unless a meeting is going to be bogged down for hours on end.
The county should at least investigate a system similar to those more interactive and user-friendly setups used by other local governments.
If this pandemic continues, the need for open, honest government and the ability of the citizenry to participate will be even more important. Those rights and responsibilities shouldn’t be at the whim of a glitch in the system.
A reasonable effort has been made to keep the public and officials safe, but this has been a temporary solution to a longterm problem. Our county has too poor of a history of ignoring the will of the citizens and even occasionally denying access to public documents. Allowing speakers to attend meetings, wearing masks and taking precautions, would go a long way towards fostering confidence in our county government. At the very least, a reliable, simple system should be put in place that allows the people to know more about what’s happening in the halls of power they finance.