Why is the Oregon Legislature so unprepared for a virtual Legislative Session?
On March 8, 2020 Governor Brown issued Executive Order 20-03
Declaring and Emergency for COVID-19. On April 15, 2020, the Governor issued Executive Order 20-16
after several County and City elected officials asked for a variance in public meeting law so that they could continue to conduct the business of the public as safely as possible throughout the declared emergency. The EO allowed elected officials and appointed public boards to use video communications to hold public meetings and allow the public to access and participate in those meetings while keeping in person gatherings at a minimum.
Ten months after the initial Emergency declaration and nine months after moving all other public bodies to video meetings one would have thought that the State of Oregon would have been better prepared to handle a virtual legislation session.
When the legislature convened on January 19, 2021, there were no custom designed Oregon Legislative virtual meeting platforms, but rather the Legislature chose to use Microsoft Teams, an off the shelf chat-based collaboration platform. A platform designed for business use, not for running and managing public meetings.
Written testimony and meeting links remained on the legacy system used by the legislature, The Oregon Legislative Information System. However, video being used was no longer the legacy 1-way systems where video cameras broadcast the hearings live from the hearing rooms. Instead, the meetings were conducted on the Microsoft Teams platform managed from wherever the Chair of the Committee might be hosting from that day. Some host from their homes and others from their offices at the Capitol. Equally, due to the Capitol not being open to the public, many legislators also join the meetings from their homes rather than their Capitol offices.
One of the issues with the virtual hearings, that has become evident, is that not all legislators are well versed or well trained in the use of Microsoft Teams. They try to run the meeting both judicially and functionally. This is a challenge they do not have to do when committees meet in person. During that situation, the committee administrator and the assistant manage the technical aspects and the legislator does what they do best; they run the meeting.
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Another distraction with the virtual hearings has been the loss of professionalism and decorum. If a person chooses to go to the capitol to testify, there were rules of engagement for the public to follow and the process was typically professional, and the elected officials were treated with respect and those testifying were treated with mutual respect. This session during the virtual hearings there has been video of lawmakers falling asleep on camera, people testifying using their middle finger at the camera, a Legislator with a cat wrapped around their neck, and people on camera, but not testifying, making lunch, and proceeding to eat it on camera. Unlike in person committee meetings where attention of committee members was easy to gauge, and public testimony and spectators kept in check.
In an open letter posted on the #Timberunity Facebook page to House Speaker Kotek from Jen Hamaker, she expressed some of the frustrations held by many Oregonians since session began in January. She wrote in part:
“Representative Kotek, this legislative session has been anything but transparent.
I’ve waited for hours to give testimony only to have the meeting end before I was able to testify.
I’ve rearranged my day, and childcare to give testimony only to have the hearing cancelled and rescheduled. I’ve seen technical glitches and issues galore that prohibited Oregonians from being able to testify. I’ve witnessed Committee Chairs cut people’s testimony to 30 seconds instead of 3 minutes”.
She closed her letter with a plea that summed up the desires of many Oregonians. She said,
“If you don’t want public engagement, you’re going at it the right way! I request that you organize our House so that it reflects inclusivity, transparency and democracy which means a government where people participate”.
The Oregon Legislature and the Oregon State Capitol has always been the people’s house. COVID-19 has shut the people’s house down and turned the 81st Legislative Session into bad version of the 1960’s version of Hollywood Squares.
|Post Date: 2021-03-26 09:53:31||Last Update: 2021-03-26 15:09:09|