ZACHARY: General Assembly must provide 2021 access

DomeLight by Jim Zachary 

It is too soon to know what the COVID-19 situation will be in January or what the 2021 convening of the Georgia General Assembly will look like. 

It is highly unlikely a vaccine will be widely available by then. 

It is also very possible state lawmakers will have to make accommodations to keep themselves and their colleagues safe. We will all still be talking about the importance of wearing masks, social distancing, avoiding crowds, frequent hand washing and the use of hand sanitizers three months from now. 

Suspending the session is not reasonable. 

There is a lot of work to be done, not the least of which is the heavy lifting of amending the state budget, then drafting and passing the FY 2021-22 budget. It will be no easy task. 

That's why it is important that lawmakers and the governor's administration begin now looking at how technology can be used to do the state's business in an open and transparent way. 

Committee rooms are small and not suitable for social distancing. 

When the House and the Senate convene on the floor, the room is also packed and meeting in that way could be a super-spreader event. 

Still, the people's business must be done, and it must be open. 

This year, the General Assembly session was suspended, then reconvened to ratify the budget. 

Lawmakers largely wore their masks, and when in-person meetings must be conducted, that is obviously the responsible thing to do. 

Local jurisdictions in Georgia — county commissions, boards of education, city councils — have been able to comply with local open government laws during the pandemic by continuing to provide adequate public notices of all meetings, live streaming meetings, making sure there was easy public access to those meetings and even providing for public input and commenting through real-time chat options. 

While the General Assembly unfortunately exempts itself from the state's Open Meetings Act, it does have a long history of public access to committee meetings and floor votes. State lawmakers could take a page or two out of the playbooks of local government and use the very same technologies to conduct committee meetings remotely while providing not only public access but public input in those deliberations. 

All the business transactions of state lawmakers is the people's business, and the people of Georgia should have complete and total access. 

Jim Zachary, CNHI director of newsroom training & development, is the editor of The Valdosta Daily Times and The Tifton Gazette, and president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. 

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