The courthouse in Lawrence County, Ohio, is about to ease restrictions on public access. Public officials are no longer afraid of the public. Mostly.
People no longer need masks to enter the courthouse or other county-owned facilities, and they will no longer have their temperatures checked. Those measures have been in place for more than a year and followed recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from the Ohio Department of Health.
Effective June 1, the county will remove all reduced-occupancy restrictions for county-run buildings, although each independently elected officeholder can set rules for entry to his or her office.
Meanwhile, the Lawrence County Board of Commissioners could reopen its meetings to the public. That would be a welcome acknowledgement of open and transparent government.
That’s Ohio. West Virginia officials are still hunkered down in their 2020-era pandemic protocols while the rest of the state has decided it’s vaccinated and, assuming the vaccines work, is ready to get back to normal.
Gov. Jim Justice has yet to allow reporters to attend his virtual news conferences. The Capitol remains closed off to the public. Only invited guests may watch the workings of government in person.
Locally, the Huntington City Council still meets in a room void of visitors. The only people allowed in the room to watch the council at work are people invited for specific items of business. Councilmembers say they are following guidance from the Cabell-Huntington Health Department and from the state.
“I think it’s more of a matter of not ‘if’ but ‘when,’” Council Chairwoman Jennifer Wheeler told The Herald-Dispatch reporter McKenna Horsley about the possibility of council reopening meetings to the public.
As for the governor and the Capitol, who knows?
This is getting old.
The public’s business is done best in full view of the public, not behind closed doors. Online streaming of meetings is a substitute, but not a good one. Some committee meetings of the Legislature provided audio streaming only, and it was difficult for people listening in to know who was speaking.
That’s good for public officials, because it reduces accountability. It’s not good for the public, because it reduces public officials’ accountability.
In dealing with public business, government’s default position should be openness. Lawrence County officials have the right idea. The time for hiding from COVID-19 is over. West Virginia needs to do likewise.