When the COVID pandemic began, city councils, county boards, school boards and other public bodies began airing their meetings online, including using Zoom, YouTube, public access television and via phone.
There were some glitches early on as local governments and the public learned to use the technology, but it has become a comfortable and convenient way for the public to watch their elected officials in action.
The practice should continue into the future, even after public bodies are allowed to meet in person and have citizens attend meetings in person.
Virtual meetings allow people to watch meetings they are interested in no matter where they might be at the time. Residents interested in a city council or county board meeting who may be out of the area or who have responsibilities that keep them at home are still able to listen in. People have also been able to call in and voice their opinions during public comment periods at meetings.
For those without transportation to get to city hall, the school district office or the county board room, they are still able to participate. Those who have physical difficulties can also easily be a part of their elected officials’ meetings from the comfort of their home.
Already, some states are considering legislation that would make virtual meetings part of their open meeting laws. California is considering various proposals that would remove barriers to virtual meetings, such as current rules that require a quorum of elected officials to be physically within the boundaries of the jurisdiction. Other legislation would require public bodies to offer virtual access to meetings simultaneous with their normal in-person meetings.
The virtual meetings of the past year have been allowed under part of the governor’s emergency declarations. But not all public bodies in the state followed the spirit of the rules. A resident filed a complaint with the state after a St. Louis County school board continued to hold meetings with a quorum of members meeting in person but barring the public from attending in person.
While the board did allow residents to listen in on the meeting virtually, the Commissioner of Administration ruled they violated the Open Meeting Law as they chose to meet in person but only allowed remote attendance for the public.
The case shows that as public bodies have been allowed to air meetings virtually, some will try to find loopholes to limit full public participation. That’s why the Legislature needs to clarify rules.
Lawmakers should refine the Open Meeting Law to encourage public bodies to continue allowing remote access once in-person meetings resume, while ensuring that local governments do not try to circumvent the spirit of the law to limit public access, whether in person or remotely.
Access to the business of public bodies should be as easy as possible.