Eye On Illinois: Embrace technology unless it limits public access

Technology giveth, and technology taketh away.

That statement doesn’t concern the use of instant replay during baseball playoffs – though it could – but the ongoing predominance of the remote meeting.

Whatever the platform, nearly everyone by now is familiar with the experience. In addition to school and work, our house has used video calls for connecting with church friends, cello lessons, a charity auction, Little League board meetings, book club, a school conference, a white elephant gift exchange and probably half a dozen other things I can’t recall because my brain is numb from so many hours looking at talking heads in tiny boxes.

But what once was ubiquitous now is intermittent. Our school district has in-person parent-teacher conferences this week, but neighboring towns will be doing theirs online. Our church handbell choir is back to rehearsing in person as a matter of necessity, while the Little League board is opting to stay remote, deeming it more convenient.

The calculus takes on another layer of complexity when the gathering is a government session subject to open meetings laws.

The Illinois Municipal League is behind Senate Bill 482, which the General Assembly should consider at its fall veto session next week. The measure would remove a requirement that remote government meetings are permissible only under an active disaster declaration from either the governor or Illinois Department of Public Health.

Remote meetings weren’t allowed under any circumstances until early 2020, when Gov. JB Pritzker made it legal through an executive order followed by legislative action. Sen. Cristina Castro, D-Elgin, filed SB 482 on Feb. 23; it bounced from the Assignments Committee to the Executive, stalling on April 16.

“Remote meetings increase the opportunity for transparency and public participation by providing a format by which all members of a community or other interested observers, regardless of where they are physically located, may observe and participate in meetings of the public body,” the IML reported in a February position paper.

While it’s easier to get 500 people on a video stream than into the regular meeting space for most city councils and school boards, and hard to argue with the IML’s stance that “Local officials are best-equipped to determine the necessity of an in-person meeting based upon the unique circumstances within their community,” it’s not safe to assume all parties have the necessary equipment, connection and acuity to fully participate online.

Furthermore, facilitating watching must be paired with allowing constituent participation – a harder nut to crack online.

Any body that can convene an online meeting is equipped to stream an in-person session, which expands access without inessential limits on physical access to public buildings. Governments should embrace technology, but never at the expense of access.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.