EDITORIAL: Virtual meetings provide cover

The Dispatch Editorial Board
Chief Bryan Rizzo gives his report to the  Northeastern Regional Police Board during their meeting, Monday, May 18, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

As if the coronavirus hasn't taken enough all ready.

Good luck asking questions of elected officials these days. Virtual public meetings — all the rage thanks to the pandemic — have made that nearly impossible.

While an appropriate short-term practice in the age of social distancing, these alleged "meetings" have erected a barrier to accountability behind which the elected class seems more than happy to hole up.

Take, for example, Monday night's meeting of the Northeastern school board. For the uninitiated, that board is faced with possibly sacking Shallow Brook Intermediate School Principal Scott D'Orazio for a post on his personal Facebook page critical of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Whether one considers D'Orazio's post racist, the school board's handling of the crisis is clearly of public interest.

But Dispatch reporter Lindsay VanAsdalan could only watch from home and ask questions in the chat window because the meeting was virtual. She attempted to ask questions — neither the board nor its counsel were particularly clear about the process — and, when the public comment period came round, ignored her query.

"It's not a public comment," they say. 

Had VanAsdalan been in the room, she would have cornered board members, who are elected officials, and asked questions. That's especially true since board members aren't especially keen on returning phone calls. 

The issue is hardly isolated to Northeastern. Board after board, official after official seem far too willing to exploit the pandemic in an effort to duck legitimate questions from the public.

Gov. Tom Wolf has taken substantial heat throughout the pandemic because, early on, his so-called press conferences where anything but. Initially virtual, Wolf only answered questions hand-picked by his staff. 

Unsurprisingly, and as confusion about his various mandates swirled, a disproportionate number of softballs survived the vetting process.

From the gubernatorial podium to a board room in northeastern York County, the pandemic has become the ultimate cover for those seeking to duck transparency. 

The Trump administration is refusing to release the list of businesses that received about $500 billion in emergency pandemic funding, despite the Small Business Administration's years' long practice of making public similar information.

For months, Wolf's administration refused to name nursing homes that had outbreaks of the coronavirus. After significant pressure, the administration relented, but published a list that, by all accounts, is rife with inaccuracies.

And, now, local elected officials appear to be hiding behind virtual meetings to duck questions from the very public who elected them.