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Gordon: One good thing about pandemic? Local government’s more open, accessible | COMMENTARY

It is common for elected officials to run on an array of ideas when seeking public office. Catchphrases and sound bites sound good and may resonate with the public, but they are only truly of any value if the candidate upholds these once elected. As we all know, actions speak louder than words.

One word that is heavily used by our elected and candidates running for office alike is the term “transparency.” By definition transparency, in the context of government, is one of honesty, openness, and ease of access to information to the general public. Transparency allows citizens to hold their elected officials and government accountable. It is also found in the quality of the government or official’s openness to both share information and respond to public inquiry.

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For example, one might have access to public meetings, but due to the scheduled time of a meeting the majority of the public is unable to physically attend the meeting. Is this an example of openness and transparency by definition? Yes — however, it does not properly or adequately minister to the public or voters that our elected officials and government serve.

Responsiveness is also a key piece of transparency in government. We typically hear only about the elected who the public votes into office. True transparency should include any employee or hired position whether in a supervisory capacity or other to adequately address inquiries and be responsive in a proper amount of time. After all, salaries are paid by the public’s tax dollars—which makes them accountable to us as citizens.

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While over the past seven months, our lives have been upended in a variety of ways, one thing that can be viewed as positive from the pandemic is better transparency and access. On the local level in Carroll County, city councils embraced technology to give the public better access to not only council meetings, but also to departmental and committee meetings of the various municipalities. This openness is not coincidental, but is due to the Maryland Open Meetings Act required by the state of Maryland.

The “Maryland’s Open Meetings Act is a statute that requires many state and local public bodies to hold their meetings in public, to give the public adequate notice of those meetings, and to allow the public to inspect meetings minutes. The Act permits public bodies to discuss some topics confidentially. The Act’s goals are to increase the public’s faith in government, ensure the accountability of government to the public, and enhance the public’s ability to participate effectively in our democracy,” according to the state of Maryland attorney general’s website.

The public also owes a great deal of appreciation to Richard Turner, the executive director of the Community Media Center of Carroll County and staff for their tireless efforts. These worthy efforts have occurred not only during this pandemic, but consistently for their involvement in producing and disseminating information for the residents of the county.

Here in Carroll, our municipalities have been working diligently to keep the public that they serve informed. Hampstead’s City Council has continued to offer live meetings and are strictly socially distancing to serve their community. There are also some changes in the works relating to the meetings in Taneytown. The city council has been until recently offering live streaming meetings, but will soon begin meeting with the council back in person and they will continue to live stream for the public’s viewing. Taneytown has also made the decision to continue to host live streaming of their meetings after COVID-19 restrictions are removed.

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Locally, Westminster’s Mayor and City Council have been live streaming meetings which has been a true benefit to the city’s public. Attendance online to these meetings has ranged from some 169 views to more than 5,100 views and far exceeds the days prior to COVID-19 when one could only attend a meeting in person and might find a dozen or so citizens on average in attendance. Hopefully, the leadership of our county seat will follow in the footsteps of their sister municipality and decide now to continue live streaming all city meetings for greater transparency and access to the public that they serve.

Tom Gordon writes from Westminster. His column appears every other Saturday. He can be reached at tgordonwrites@gmail.com

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