We were saddened recently to watch the Knox County Commissioners vote to vacate their meeting room inside the courthouse.
It was a small, modest room — one whose limits grew increasingly more clear amid the COVID-19 pandemic — but still perfectly suitable for the smaller groups who regularly meet there, like the Unsafe Building, Invasive Species, Election and Public Defender boards, to name a few.
Public access there is easy, safe given the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by the county in recent years to make the building more secure and compliant with current Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
And it just seems odd to have a courthouse — a designated place to conduct county business — without a proper meeting space.
The county commissioners, as well as the Knox County Council, for months have been holding their public meetings at the Pantheon: A Business and Innovation Theatre at 428 Main St. The city and county jointly split the $2.4 million interior transformation from historic theater to co-working space and small business incubator.
Since it opened in December, governing bodies have opted to use the theater’s balcony lecture-style space for meetings, but in terms of public access, it leaves much to be desired.
We agree that the building is something for which the community can be immensely proud, and we believe in the innovation and entrepreneurs that will inevitably be nurtured within its walls.
We have been especially delighted to see the ways in which the Pantheon is working to connect those within Knox County’s largest industry — agriculture — with emerging technology that could make production easier and more profitable.
Great minds are leading those endeavors, and the Pantheon is indeed a jewel in Vincennes crown of historic downtown offerings.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean a theater balcony is the best place to conduct public business.
Nary a meeting there goes by when we don’t overhear someone complain about the many steps it takes to get up there, the many more steps one must take to get back down to where the elected officials are seated, the overall lack of handrails or — perhaps most important — the difficulty in hearing what is happening below.
We’ve seen people wobble and trip and pay far more attention to foot placement than should be necessary when attending a meeting of the minds whose very purpose is to work toward the the good of the overall community.
Yes, there is elevator access, but the visitor is left, somewhat abandoned, at the very top, some 40 feet away and unable to hear or participate in the public meeting at all.
That said, Pantheon officials are aware of some of these issues and are doing what they can to remedy them. There have been talks of sound panels to improve acoustics, and we know that additional hand rails are on the final punch list as interior renovations wrap up.
But we fear the overall obstacles to full public access will remain.
Most of our local elected officials pride themselves on transparency and being accessible to the public, so we know the decision to move the meetings to the Pantheon was never intended to exclude or create barriers. Rather, in wanting to take advantage of such a vast and beautiful space, we believe this was simple oversight — one we hope the commissioners will take into consideration.
We’re hopeful that as talks continue of an expansion to the Knox County Jail, the possibility of renovating the old jail on North Eighth Street, which currently houses the probation and community corrections departments, will be pursued.
We love the idea of transforming the space into a county multi-purpose building, complete with much-deserved offices for the commissioners themselves and an ADA-accessible meeting room for use by all county governing bodies, big and small.
Until then, there is always City Hall or, perhaps, a suitable space in the complex of buildings owned by the Knox County Public Library. Other options in the community, too, exist.
The bottom line is that we’ve watched public access to county meetings diminish. We’ve watched as communication suffered.
We’ve watched as other, smaller governing bodies were left to wonder where they will go to conduct business, knowing the Pantheon’s balcony likely isn’t appropriate for the elderly who so often attend.
So we ask — what greater responsibility do our county elected officials have than to offer their constituents a safe and easily-accessible space in which to participate in their own government?