Sunshine Week Prompts A Call To Enhance Civic Engagement
Sunshine Week, March 12-18, provides an opportunity for your community newspaper and members of the Newtown community it serves to raise our collective voice for transparency — and even better access to public information than residents already have.
While Newtown was providing online streaming so residents could view a number of its government meetings long before anyone ever heard of COVID-19, among the executive orders issued during the early months of the pandemic were those allowing state municipalities to meet online so long as the public could attend remotely.
As the related executive orders expired, Newtown returned to a patchwork of live streams, short-term remote meeting requirements, and in some cases reverted back to pre-COVID policies and in-person meetings only.
The Newtown Bee is standing with many colleagues and other state and regional newspapers in supporting permanent changes to state laws to require both in-person and remote access to government meetings.
Readers with young children, health issues, disabilities, work commitments, or other circumstances that prevent in-person attendance at these meetings are at risk of again being shut out of the democratic process. At the same time, there are benefits to in-person meetings that must continue along with this expanded access.
This newspaper has regularly espoused that an informed citizenry is the best check against government missteps or worse. Sunshine Week is the perfect occasion to lobby for permanent changes so all members of the public can effectively engage with their local government and stay informed.
A 2020 study published in The Journal of Civic Information and authored by Jodie Gil and Jonathan L. Wharton involved nearly 100 municipalities in Connecticut following the state’s COVID-19 emergency orders. It found that the majority of these municipalities experienced the same or increased participation during their public budget deliberations as they had previously.
While these towns also experienced learning curves and other unexpected challenges, the findings by the authors reinforce what many have come to believe during the last three years: The public is more likely to participate in meetings when given multiple ways to do so. And remote meeting technology is becoming more prevalent, less expensive, and greatly needed by citizens unable to attend in person.
There have been few silver linings to emerge from COVID-19. Remote access to government meetings is one of them. It provides equity and engagement in our democracy that many members of our communities would not otherwise enjoy.
Support The Continued Publication Of Legal Notices In Print
Once a public notice has been struck into print in a local newspaper, that notice becomes part of a permanent and pertinent public record. As we all know, however, making changes, additions, or deletions to most electronic information is as quick and easy as a few clicks on a keyboard.
Connecticut lawmakers are currently considering rescinding a requirement that municipalities place qualified legal notices in print in a local newspaper with “substantial” circulation in the town involved. These public notices have been a standard element of The Newtown Bee for nearly one and a half centuries, and they have served Newtown’s residents and government agencies well.
While these notices certainly cost taxpayers dollars, and provide sustainable revenue to your local newspaper, they also exist in an environment that cannot be changed once the ink has dried on the newsprint. We believe is one of the most important reasons why a move to alleviate municipalities from this requirement represents bad policy.
We have implored the Newtown Legislative Delegation — Senator Tony Hwang, and Representatives Mitch Bolinsky and Martin Foncello — to vociferously oppose permitting public notices to be exclusively published on municipal websites. While providing an immediate and handy reference to residents, requirements to concurrently publish the information in local newspapers still codifies the details into a permanent and independent public record that can be accessed easily by everyone, forever — and will not leave this information vulnerable to electronic manipulation in any way by anyone.
We hope Newtown residents agree, and will also reach out to local delegation members supporting our position on this issue.
(Editor’s Note: Segments of this week’s Ink Drops were submitted by Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization and the region’s leading advocate for First Amendment freedoms and the public’s right to know about government.)