Now is time for publicly elected, responsive government to shine

By Chris Villines, AAC Executive Director

We all never saw this coming. COVID-19 (an acronym for COronaVIrus Disease of 2019) was an obscure virus in Wuhan, China in January that has since wreaked havoc with lives and economies across the world. As I proofed the articles for this issue I realized that many were written just a few weeks ago, but still in a world where things were normal. Now we are anything but normal.

Social media has gone mad-nuts, television is reporting breaking news every two to three minutes, and our days are filled with watching press conferences from the White House and Arkansas Department of Health. This is unlike any other disaster I’ve seen. I’m sure you would agree.

We find ourselves in county government in a very unique situation. We have statutory duties to be responsive to the public — a constituent base that for the most part is home and practicing social distancing. In states that have advanced numbers of cases (and stay in place orders) it has been clear that local government must continue to operate. Should things get much worse in Arkansas we will likely have the same mandate.

The stage doesn’t really need to be set on the issue. You all are familiar with how this is playing out, and it will change between when I begin writing this column and when I end.

There are two things that stand out right now. First of all, the amazing value, knowledge, talent, energy and creativity of our coronavirus response team here at the AAC. Secondly, many who eschew government are now begging and pleading for government help, at all levels.

There is a translation that needs to be made between federal and state laws or rules and the practical impact and recommended guidelines that we need in the trenches. This can sometimes be a difficult process, and the staff here at AAC is working around the clock to get you the most up-to-date pragmatic information on these issues.

Locally you have to analyze your offices, evaluate the options and make moves that are balanced with laws, policy, constituent services and federal and state guidelines. Each office is different. Each county is different. Your needs are different from county to county. As I’ve said before … if you know one county, you know one county.

We are here to help with the general, but where I think we can do the most good is when you have specific situations that we can help walk you through. No guidance proffered right now can truly take into account the individual circumstances you will find yourselves in. By email you should already know about the makeup of our coronavirus response team, but I want to remind you if you have specific questions email or call myself, Mark Whitmore, Lindsey French, Brandy McAllister, Camille Neemann or JaNan Thomas. We stand ready to help you through what will prove to be complex implementation of guidelines. Our resident new dad, Josh Curtis (congratulations), and Eddie Jones will continue to work with you but are going to send COVID-19 questions to the team of six.

I cannot tell you how proud I am of this team.

The next thing on my mind is just how quickly public opinion can change. COVID-19 has pivoted many people’s opinion of what government is for. It’s so easy for many to complain about government, and often the disdain is inappropriately aimed at the local level. It is at times like these that a publicly elected and responsive government has tremendous opportunity to shine. We remain largely open. We continue to ensure that public safety and transactions can continue. And we provide answers when other countries’ citizens find their governments distant and ineffective, sometimes even draconian.

I hope when we come through this (and we will) that people will remember the value of local government. Wired to help, you all continue to do all you can for your citizens in the face of fear and unknowing. Thank you, thank you, thank you for all you do.

I’d like to close with a little pat on our collective backs for the tremendous vision and work that is paying off in our Justice Bridge system. Since self-quarantines began, many of our circuit courts and sheriffs have been working in concert to have court appearances take place over the Justice Bridge. Little did we know when we began installing the units that someday we would experience this type of social distancing — and how practical a video court system might be.

Mark Harrell has been extremely busy responding to new judges and public defenders wanting to utilize the system, and we’ve been sending phones to those users who can tap into counties without having to visit a jail or courtroom.

Active in over half of our counties, we have seen incredible results during this pandemic. We will continue to install new systems as the virus subsides. I look forward to the day when I drive down the interstate and no longer see sheriff transport vans crisscrossing the state wasting valuable county resources.

Stay safe and healthy friends, we will continue to pray for this disaster to end.

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