A new year can mean many things. Most people like to set some expectations or challenges for themselves in the form of new resolutions, while others simply enjoy the ability to start a new calendar year with a clean slate and a fresh perspective looking
A new year can mean many things. Most people like to set some expectations or challenges for themselves in the form of new resolutions, while others simply enjoy the ability to start a new calendar year with a clean slate and a fresh perspective looking forward.
Such a simple transition is not possible in 2021 – for even though another journey around the sun has been completed, its symbolism does nothing to halt the continuing interference of COVID-19 within our lives.
Even by the most optimistic projections – and assuming the new incoming federal government is able to cobble together enough collaboration to successfully assist states in administering the new vaccines – we know we’re looking at a minimum of another five or so months before we can expect things to “return to normal,” as we’ve become so accustomed to saying.
This timeline is even more significant for state legislatures across the country, including here in Rhode Island. Our legislators are only in session until the summer, so at the moment it appears a good bulk of this session will occur under the continuing veil of COVID. This has widespread implications and presents significant issues for public involvement – with few solutions seemingly apparent.
This is not to say that the government can’t function in a socially distant manner. By this point of the pandemic, we are well aware how meetings can be conducted electronically, chambers can be cordoned off by plexiglass and meeting recordings can be hosted online indefinitely for even more visibility.
However, these methods are imperfect at best and present their own limitations for public involvement – particularly for those members of the public without reliable access to high-speed internet or a computer that can adequately stream videos. It is no secret that a fair number of the most civically involved citizens are also older, and less likely to be able to engage through an electronic platform without assistance – which may also not be feasible given their higher likelihood of being at-risk from COVID infection and loved ones opting to not risk their health.
Other issues may seem more abstract but are worth mentioning. We are wary of lobbyist-legislator relationships growing more subversive as business is conducted elsewhere besides in person at the State House. We are concerned about committee meetings being less attended and less organized, leading to oversights or consequential decisions being made out of the public eye. Even things like the inability for protesters to gather and make their voices heard from within the rotunda will contribute to a much different atmosphere within the State House – and not one that we believe will be for the better.
This is, of course, not the fault of any one individual or entity. The virus has upended nearly everything in our society and forced us to get creative to figure out how to continue to function. The fact that we’re able to continue holding open meetings through web meeting software and hear testimony at all is wonderful and would not have been remotely possible even just a short time ago. Regardless, we are hopeful that there is more that can be done to ensure public access to their representatives.
A share of the responsibility should fall on State House communications staff and upon legislators themselves, who should take on a more active role in advocating for their constituents and being vocal online about when important bills are going to be discussed or voted upon. The media will also play a large role in ensuring an open and public government for all. Most importantly, the public itself must demand for a continued seat at the table – even if that seat is their own computer chair.