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Are In-Person Public Meetings a Thing of the Past?
What about connectivity and the digital divide?

Over the past year, Oregonians have figured out how to continue to conduct business virtually. The Oregon Legislature and other publicly elected bodies are no different. April 15, 2020 Governor Kate Brown announced Executive Order 20-16 which stated:

During this emergency, state and local governments must continue to operate, provide essential services, and make decisions in a public and transparent manner. Governments must do so safely, consistent with my emergency directives. Public participation is essential to the functioning of our state and local governments, but in-person attendance at public meetings presents a risk to the public health and safety of Oregonians, unless appropriate measures are taken. Thus, during this emergency, public meetings should be held via telephone, video, electronic or other virtual means, whenever possible, to keep Oregonians safe, and to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Shortly after that, during the 1st special legislative session in June of 2020, the legislature passed HB 4212 which codified into law the ability of public governing bodies to be able to conduct public business remotely until 30 days after the end of the declaration of a state of emergency expires.

One year later, the 6th extension of state of emergency keeps HB 4212 in place. School boards, city councils and the legislature continue to operate in the virtual world. Now, the legislature would like to see this practice become permanent through the introduction of HB 2560 by Representative Meek (D-Gladstone) and Senator Steiner Hayward (D-Portland). This legislation would require meetings held by public governing bodies to reasonably provide opportunities to the general public to access and attend the meeting by telephone, video, or other electronic or virtual means and to allow oral and written testimony by electronic or virtual means.

During a hearing on the bill earlier this month a great deal of written testimony was submitted, but only a hand full of people signed up to testify virtually in person. One of those was Mary Kyle McCurdy with 1,000 Friends of Oregon. She expressed support for the bill stating, “Remote access to public hearings and meetings opens these to so many more Oregonians”. Kathryn Jernstedt with Friends of Yamhill County also testified on the bill. Although she was in favor of the bill, she wanted to make sure that it was “not the only option because there are barriers to this as we well as the pre-COVID systems”. She was specifically concerned with connectivity and the digital divide. Ironically, during her testimony, her connection to the meeting had issues adding validity to her concern.

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

Mark Landauer with the Special Districts Association of Oregon also testified on the legislation. He reminded the committee that “it was local government that originally approached the governor asking for this type of electronic communication to be allowed”. They knew that they were not going to be allowed to conduct business in traditional ways during the State of Emergency, but the business of the people needed to continue. However, if made permanent, challenges remain with actual implementation and managing public expectations. There are 950 special districts that hold public meetings is some manner. They are not all going to have the capabilities to livestream meetings considering that at least 300 of them don’t even have websites currently. The bill was amended in committee for a technical fix and HB 2560 is headed to the House floor for a vote.


--Terese Humboldt

Post Date: 2021-03-19 18:05:43Last Update: 2021-03-19 18:31:22



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