Rayno: Government Transparency Critical During COVID-19 Crisis

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CONCORD – The Legislature has been shut down for two weeks, but it feels longer than that.

Two weeks ago, the House held a marathon session lasting until 4 a.m. to finish work on bills that need to be reviewed by a second House committee before they are passed and sent to the Senate or rejected.

Since that time, Gov. Chris Sununu issued at stay-at-home order, ordered non-essential businesses closed, limited meetings to 10 people or less, closed restaurants and bars except for takeout and delivery, closed schools and state ocean beaches, expanded childcare services, relaxed requirements for unemployment benefits, established a fund for health-care providers, and numerous other actions intended to both limit fact-to-face contact and create a soft landing for those negatively impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

This weekend he addressed a growing concern in several New England states about people leaving virus hotspots like the greater New York City area and parts of New Jersey and Connecticut, and the greater Boston area and coming to New Hampshire to escape but bringing the disease with them.

With a Tweet posting, Sununu asked all out-of-staters coming to New Hampshire for an extended period of time to voluntarily self-quarantine for two weeks.

“This applies to individuals who come to New Hampshire for an extended stay at a hotel, vacation home, other vacation or home rental, or an extended stay with family or friends,” Sununu wrote. “This does not apply to individuals making same-day trips to New Hampshire for work, to purchase essential goods or services, or to check in on a close family member or friend.”

In Rhode Island, National Guard members are going door-to-door to enforce the mandatory, two-week self-quarantine for out-of-staters.

Massachusetts has a similar order for those entering the state but do not reside there.

All this has happened in a two-week period that has seen the state’s known cases of COVID-19 increase to 214 with two deaths and 33 hospitalizations touching all but one of the state’s counties. The exact number of cases cannot be determined without extensive testing, which is not possible because of a lack of supplies.

The Legislature like the rest of the state is shut down until May 4 banned from the State House and the Legislative Office Building until they can be thoroughly cleaned and then locked down to preserve the “germ-free” state until the decision is made to begin again.

Despite the lack of public gatherings, the Executive Council held a remote meeting via electronic communications and has another electronic meeting scheduled April 10.

During the last meeting, councilors heard what the state’s response from agency heads including when the number of cases is expected to peak: the end of April or first of May.

The federal government recently approved a $2.2 trillion package to address largely economic issues, with New Hampshire expecting about $1.2 billion.

The legislature needs to accept the money, so the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee is scheduled to meet electronically April 8 to accept the federal funds and to allow state agencies to move money to do the greatest good.

“It is important for New Hampshire that the Fiscal Committee meet to accept any federal funding and work with state agencies to ensure they have the funding in the right accounts to help New Hampshire fight the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Fiscal Committee Chair Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, and Vice Chair Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester. “We look forward to doing all we can to continue to flatten the curve and protect the health and wellbeing of Granite Staters.”

While the Legislature has suspended work until May 4, House Speaker Stephen Shurtleff writes in the most recent House Calendar about the possibility of remote committee meetings.

“While we still have many questions about how we move forward, we are exploring ways for us to be able to meet remotely, at least with our committees, so we can get work done,” Shurtleff writes. “We hope to be able to provide you with information on how this will work in the upcoming weeks.”

Remote committee meetings sound like a workable solution in keeping the legislative process moving forward and not waiting until the pandemic’s peak has passed, but there are pitfalls to such plans.

How will the public be able to access the meetings and the executive sessions? Will there be some way for the public to testify or will it all be written testimony?

Some cities and towns are holding remote meetings like the Manchester Board of Mayor and Aldermen, but they are somewhat cumbersome when every vote has to be a roll call and the agenda has 100 or more items, like the Executive Council.

And many towns and cities are just cancelling meetings putting action on hold until the worst of the crisis is over.

Cancelling planning board and selectmen’s meetings could bring developments or construction projects to a halt, further impacting the employment ranks as businesses shed jobs by the thousands locally and millions nationally in the last two weeks.

Most cities and towns have closed administrative offices to the public to avoid face-to-face contact to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Instead, they encourage residents to communicate electronically with local officials or use the US Postal Service. That is fine but like other electronic communications, if there is an issue that needs to be discussed, that is more difficult.

As government at all levels tries to go about their work in this very challenging environment, one casualty of the new normal could be accountability.

The right-to-know law is easy enough to circumvent now and moving to remote meetings does not enhance it.

Having covered the legislature for many years, the quickest source for guarded information was a trusted member of the minority party.

With no central gathering place, information will not be shared as freely and is easier to control.

In the next few months, some significant decisions will be made that will affect all of us for years to come.

The people making those decisions need to be held accountable even though they acted with the best intentions.

How decisions are made is as important as the decision.

In a crisis, most are willing to give up some of their protections and rights for the common good.

But history is populated with people consolidating power or padding their pockets during a crisis under the umbrella of the greater good.

That is why despite the good intentions of finding new ways to conduct government business, citizens must remain vigilant about transparency in government from the President to the local planning board.

As poet T.S. Eliot said in his poem the Hollow Men: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.”

To paraphrase “This is the way democracy ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.”

As the pandemic grows and the crisis expands, we should not take our eyes off our democracy or the people we elected to run it.

Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com.

Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.

 InDepthNH.org is New Hampshire’s only nonprofit, online news outlet dedicated to reporting ethical, unbiased news and diverse opinions and columns.

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