Last week, the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, of which Editor Emerita Marcia Martinek and I are members, signed a statement urging state, tribal and local public institutions to commit to transparency during the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter, drafted by the National Freedom of Information Coalition and Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, was signed by over 130 organizations.

“As governments across the United States take measures to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, executive orders and legislative proposals are calling for the suspension of normal operating procedures including, at times, compliance with open-meeting and public-records laws,” the letter states. “We strongly urge government branches and agencies to recommit to, and not retrench from, their duty to include the public in the policy-making process, including policies relating to COVID-19 as well as the routine ongoing functions of governance.”

The Herald Democrat similarly urges Lake County’s public institutions to continue to adhere to the Colorado Sunshine Law and Criminal Justice Records Act throughout this time. Policy decisions are more important than ever and the public deserves to be involved.

“Just as citizens are being asked to defer nonessential travel and errands, so should government agencies defer noncritical policy-making decisions until full and meaningful public involvement can be guaranteed,” the letter reads. “Where postponement is not realistic, every available measure should be taken to:

(1) notify the public of meetings of government bodies and how to participate in those meetings remotely,

(2) use widely available technologies to maximize real-time public engagement, and

(3) preserve a viewable record of proceedings that is promptly made accessible online.”

As reported in Martinek’s article on page 10, most of Lake County’s public institutions have leveraged technology to stay in compliance with the state’s open meetings laws in recent weeks.

The Board of County Commissioners and St. Vincent Hospital set up a call-in number for the public to participate in board meetings. Lake County School District’s Board of Education and Leadville City Council are utilizing Zoom to hold publicly accessible video conferences.

The hospital is also encouraging locals to vote in its May 5 board election via absentee ballot. Instructions are printed on page four.

It is heartening to see local institution’s commitment to transparency in a time when public employees are spread thin dealing with COVID-19 response and relief, budgetary concerns and child and health care needs.

“This counsels in favor of affirmatively disclosing as much as is legally permissible without waiting to receive a request for records,” the letter states of staffing constraints amidst the pandemic. “It should not be necessary to reconstruct critical decisions about public health and safety by piecing together email trails through record requests. The fact that a government decision involves public health and safety is a reason for more, not less, transparency,” the letter states.

As Lake County’s public employees continue to conduct government business at home, we urge individuals to stick to the state’s records-retention protocols. Additionally, electronic communication should be transacted over public email accounts and archived on government-issued devices.

“At all times, but most especially during times of national crisis, trust and credibility are the government’s most precious assets. As people are asked to make increasing sacrifices in their daily lives for the greater good of public health, the legitimacy of government decision-making requires a renewed commitment to transparency,” the letter concludes.

The Herald Democrat commends most of Lake County’s public institutions on their efforts to provide real-time public engagement in government proceedings and policy decisions in this time of change. We hope it continues.

Rachel Woolworth

Herald Editor

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