Play Gloria: Sunshine Laws in the time of pandemic are a tricky topic

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By Gloria Lloyd, News Editor

In the time of coronavirus, do people still have constitutional rights and the right to attend public meetings?

A court will decide that this week, as a group of New Hampshire residents filed suit because they said that “stay at home” orders restrict their constitutional rights to assemble and practice freedom of religion.

In St. Louis County and across the country, officials are grappling with how to comply with Sunshine Laws — which like Missouri’s typically mandate that the public be allowed to attend meetings — with public- health measures designed to curb the effects of the coronavirus.

Ironically, these debates happened during Sunshine Week, an annual event dedicated to government openness and transparency.

The St. Louis County Council met in an emergency meeting which they did not allow members of the public to attend. Sitting 6 feet apart on the dais, the council passed legislation that allows members to meet by videoconference.

The first videoconferenced St. Louis County Council meeting was slated to happen Tuesday — after
The Call went to press. Under the rules that allow that meeting to happen, the meeting will be livestreamed by video and phone, and the public can submit written comments of 400 words or less up to an hour ahead of the meeting.

Originally, the council was going to just take those written comments and not read them during the meeting. But
in a concession to objections from frequent commenter Tom Sullivan, the council said the county clerk will
read the comments out loud.

It’s clearly not an ordinary time in the history of St. Louis County, or the United States.

But after we get past the current coronavirus crisis, we need to be careful that any emergency powers granted now or exceptions to the rules are only used in similar cases.

“A real and present conflict exists between the enforcement of public health measures and an infringement of individual rights and liberties those measures carry with them,” 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, said at the meeting.

We couldn’t agree more. Weighing both factors is important because in the past, emergency powers have been stretched to mean whatever a government body and the officials running it want it to mean.

The council’s newfound rules have the potential to be misused in the future. We’ll be watching.