News-Miner Opinion

Government openness vs. health emergency: A balance must be sought between the two during the virus outbreak

News-Miner opinion: Government declarations of emergency aren’t to be taken lightly. They are declared, at least in our country, to hasten government’s response to whatever crisis is at hand and to prompt a certain response among citizens.

The coronavirus outbreak has caused President Donald Trump to declare a national emergency. Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy has declared a state public health emergency, as have nearly all other governors. Many local governments around the nation have declared health emergencies.

Tonight in Fairbanks, the Fairbanks City Council and the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly will each be discussing, and likely voting on, emergency ordinances limiting public participation in meetings because of the virus outbreak. The borough ordinance also includes a declaration of a local public health emergency.

Limiting public involvement with government is a serious matter, but so is this public health emergency. Fortunately, we live in an age in which technology has made it possible for a citizen to participate in a public meeting without being physically present.

We hope the City Council and Borough Assembly can find a way to allow as much public participation as possible in public meetings during this health emergency while still achieving the goal of these emergency measures — public safety.

People should be able to participate in local government through teleconferencing; committees of the Alaska Legislature routinely use teleconferencing throughout their months-long sessions. Citizens should also be able, especially in time of crisis, to have their emailed comments read into the public record at a meeting.

To that end, it is heartening to see a notice on the borough’s website stating that “it is the intent to allow and encourage assembly members and the public to participate” in tonight’s meeting and all subsequent meetings telephonically. “In-person participation is still available while using social distancing practices; however, written comments and telephonic participation is encouraged.”

The proposed borough ordinance would give the assembly’s presiding officer the authority “to modify and/or waive provisions pertaining to scheduling, public participation, teleconferencing and other related provisions of code related to public meetings of the governing body, including the Board of Equalization, if deemed necessary for public health and safety; provided that, any modification and/or waiver is in compliance with state law.” It would give similar authority to the borough mayor regarding boards and commissions.

Over at the city, the proposed ordinance would suspend a provision of city code so that City Council members can regularly participate in council meetings telephonically. City code currently only allows a member to participate by teleconference or videoconference if the member’s presence is required so that a quorum can be established.

The city ordinance would also give the mayor authority to waive or modify city code requirements governing city public meetings. Any actions taken by the mayor would be subject to review and change by the council at its next meeting.

Granting authority to limit public access to government is a significant development. At times, however, such limits may be necessary. It is important, however, that as much openness as possible be provided during this health emergency and that the necessity of the limit be regularly reviewed.

The Borough Assembly’s special meeting begins at 6 p.m. today in the assembly chambers at the borough’s administrative center. Information on how to participate telephonically is available on the borough’s “Stay connected with the assembly” web page (bit.ly/33sLkQp) or by calling the Borough Clerk’s Office at 459-1401.

The special meeting of the Fairbanks City Council begins at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall, 800 Cushman St. The meeting will be broadcast online at bit.ly/2Uh815L and radio station KFBX AM 970. People who attend the meeting are asked not to rearrange the chairs, which will be spread apart for social distancing. People who wish to comment at the meeting are asked to not touch the microphone.

The Daily News-Miner encourages residents to make themselves heard through the Opinion pages. Readers' letters and columns also appear online at newsminer.com. Contact the editor with questions at letters@newsminer.com or call 459-7574.

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The Daily News-Miner encourages residents to make themselves heard through the Opinion pages. Readers' letters and columns also appear online at newsminer.com. Contact the editor with questions at letters@newsminer.com or call 459-7574.

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