Government transparency: Is enough being done in age of COVID?

A screenshot of the first meeting of the Law Enforcement Accountability Task Force last week offers a look at how officials are conducting public hearings and forums in these unusual times. Delaware State News

DOVER — COVID-19 has presented a host of challenges. Things that were commonplace and done without a second thought six months ago, like going on a date or working out at the gym, are totally different now.

Life in the time of COVID has completely changed society, and few areas have been impacted more than government operations.
Although they may be of little interest to most people, various public meetings take place every week, with hearings on police accountability, wastewater, electric rates and high school sports, just to name a few, held in the past seven days.

Before mid-March, those meetings were conducted in person. But with Delaware in a state of emergency for nearly five months, state agencies and related entities have been holding them remotely. Zoom, which became a household name almost overnight, is popular for those purposes.

While spokespeople for several of the most prominent state agencies did not have hard figures, anecdotally they said meeting attendance has remained constant or increased.

“Our best and most recent example would be the livestream reopening schools working group meetings, which have been viewed more than 7,000 times. We also received hundreds of comments from Delawareans,” Department of Education spokeswoman Alison May wrote in an email.

“The subject matter was of high interest and that’s reflected in the viewership and feedback. We have never held an in-person meeting that was able to accommodate thousands of constituents, so the virtual option certainly allowed us to reach more people for this important content. The State Board of Education and Professional Standards Boards meetings have grown a bit in attendance since we have been online, as well.”

The Department of Health and Social Services, by far one of the largest and most active state agencies, has received special attention during this crisis for obvious reasons. The agency has seen the number of likes on its Facebook page increase from 10,000 to 21,000 in a matter of months and takes pains to stay in contact with clients “through call centers, emails, postcards, letters, Zooms and telehealth visits,” spokeswoman Jill Fredel wrote in an email.

While Ms. Fredel estimated some groups, such as the Health Care Commission, have seen similar attendance figures for its virtual forums, others that had lower base attendance continue to host small numbers of participants, she said.

The department still meets with clients in person when possible.

The Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control has hosted 12 virtual public hearings over the past five months. A spokesman for the agency said attendance at some of those sessions has been similar or even higher than if they were held as normal.

Under state open government laws, public meetings must be posted online a week beforehand, generally at Some rules have been relaxed during the state of emergency, but officials say keeping Delawareans informed remains vital.

The Division of Professional Regulation in the Department of State is one of the busiest state agencies in terms of public meetings, tasked with overseeing professional licensing boards and commissions. Those panels convene at least once every other month, so it’s not unusual to have five hearings on five different days in a week, according to Director Geoff Christ.

At least for the Division of Professional Regulation, the meeting process hasn’t changed a whole lot in some ways: Instead of posting the address on the state’s online public meeting calendar, officials simply provide the dial-in information there.

Conducted by telephone, the meetings have largely seen similar attendance to pre-COVID times. Boards dealing with electricity, nursing and pharmacies still draw a decent amount of attention Mr. Christ said, while others continue to have few participants, though there are no available metrics in that regard.

There were some bumps in the first month or so of the process as people figured out the best way to conduct meetings virtually, Mr. Christ said, but things are largely running smoothly now.

“The things that do interrupt meetings are probably the same things that interfere with both public and private meetings,” like people forgetting to mute themselves or their kids running into the room, he said with a chuckle.

In a few instances, trolls have disrupted the division’s meetings. Because the forums are anonymous in the sense that anyone can call in and offer a fake name, some people have joined only to scream into the phone, according to Mr. Christ.

With the pandemic expected to drag on for many more months, the division is looking at other methods of communicating, such as Zoom.

Benefits and drawbacks

Open government advocates say virtual meetings have both benefits and drawbacks.

For many people, they make it easier for the public to take part, allowing interested individuals to watch or listen without leaving their homes. On the other hand, technical hiccups can be an issue, and meetings can simply be easier to follow when watching in person.

The General Assembly held session virtually this year for the first time in its long history, with members generally sitting in their homes or offices as they took part through Zoom. The meetings were also livestreamed through Facebook and YouTube, where they can be rewatched.

There were some bumps in the road, mainly internet connection problems or legislators forgetting to unmute themselves, but it’s easy to see the benefits of streaming proceedings online.

“I think they made a good-faith effort, and I think it’s going to take a while for all of us to get used to not being in person at some of these meetings,” said John Flaherty.

A lobbyist and former president of the Delaware Coalition for Open Government, Mr. Flaherty described the past few months as mixed in terms of government openness. Not every state agency has done a great job of ensuring the public can still weigh in on various proposals remotely, he opined.

“It’s a real learning curve both for state government and for citizens,” he said.

While acknowledging he believes most government entities are making real efforts to involve the public, Mr. Flaherty pointed to two DNREC hearings last month in which most participants were not allowed to speak. At hearings for Croda and the Delaware City Refining Company, only officials from the companies were given a chance to comment during the meetings.

In response, Keith Steck, the vice president of the Delaware Coalition for Open Government, filed a complaint with the Department of Justice alleging DNREC improperly denied others the opportunity to speak.

Though open government laws here do not require that citizens be allowed to make comments, public input is generally sought in the “spirit” of following the law, Mr. Flaherty said. Once one side is authorized to speak, others should be given the chance to do so as well, both he and Mr. Steck said, citing state law.

Mr. Steck noted Sussex County has been allowing people to comment on various proposals at county headquarters in front of councilmembers, with COVID precautions like social distancing and mask-wearing required.

“It’s not a good look for DNREC,” he said.

In an email, DNREC spokesman Michael Globetti wrote the applicants — Croda and the refinery, in this case — play “a different role than the public who may wish to comment.”

Allowing the applicants to speak also helps inform the public about the issue, he said, noting people can submit comments online or by mail for at least 15 days after the hearing.

“This allows fair treatment, meaningful involvement, and inclusion of public comments, rather than limit comments by time or other restrictions. The hearing officer recommendation and Secretary’s decision are made weeks after the hearing, which is why written comments have always been accepted and why comments made orally at an in-person hearing have always been transcribed for the record,” Mr. Globetti said.

“The exhibits are posted online on a public hearing page, public comments are posted as they are received, and the transcript of the hearing is available to the public as soon as it is received as well. … The process DNREC is currently using entirely fulfills the purpose of public comments, which is to inform the department’s regulatory decision, though we continue to evaluate as we go gain experience how we are functioning.”

Staying informed

Mike Brickner, executive director of the Delaware American Civil Liberties Union, credited state and local officials for working to make it easier for regular citizens to stay informed and involved during these times, noting Gov. John Carney has held weekly briefings on the virus for months.

Letting people take part remotely helps many who cannot actually be on site, but officials should also work to help those without internet access, “whether that’s on public access television or offering some sort of place where people could come and watch a livestream of the events,” Mr. Brickner said. Because the pandemic is expected to last into next year, he believes government needs to continue taking steps to boost public engagement.

With several months of experience now under their belts, decision-makers should also take steps to mitigate the impact of possible technical issues, such as a recent Red Clay Consolidated School District meeting being delayed because so many people tuned in virtually, Mr. Brickner noted.

Mr. Flaherty was critical of the state for not releasing more specific COVID information, such as how many cases are at each hospital or nursing home (Delaware does identify the number of deaths at most long-term care centers but not total cases). Other Delawareans have also questioned that, expressing concerns about their prospects should they have to go to the hospital for an unrelated issue.

Though Freedom of Information Act deadlines — normally 15 business days after a records request is submitted — are suspended for the duration of the state of emergency, state officials continue to receive FOIAs. In some cases, the requested information has been provided, although after the normal 15-day period.

Others continue to wait, which is why Mr. Brickner thinks officials should look at altering that suspension.

“It does raise some really good questions of whether or not we need to change that executive order to have some sort of parameters to say this is really a reasonable amount of time for a person to wait for a public records request,” he said.