By Joseph J. Braun
On Wednesday, the Ohio General Assembly took action to amend R.C. 121.22, the Ohio Open Meetings Act, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak across the state (HB 197). This emergency action came as a result of local governments across the State of Ohio expressing concern that the spread of the COVID-19 virus could result in local legislative bodies being unable to convene a quorum of its members in one physical location in order to ensure the continuity of government and make important decisions in their communities without running afoul of the Ohio Open Meetings Act.
*These changes are only temporary. They will be in effect from now until the end of the Governor’s declared state of emergency or December 1, 2020 (whichever comes first).
The bill allows public bodies to conduct meetings and hearings by electronic, teleconference, web, or video means during this state of emergency, provided the following stipulations are satisfied:
1. Notice: Public bodies that choose to meet electronically, or by teleconference, web or video must continue to provide notice to the public of their meetings. Public bodies must notify the public, the media that have requested notification, and any other parties required to be notified of a hearing at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting or hearing by reasonable methods, allowing a person to determine the time, location, and manner by which the meeting or hearing will be conducted. In the event of an emergency requiring immediate official action, the public body shall make these notifications immediately.
2. Public Access: Public bodies must provide public access to any meeting or hearing that the public would otherwise be entitled to attend. The public body must ensure that the public can observe and hear the discussions of all members, whether they are participating in person or electronically. For hearings, public bodies must establish a means, through the use of electronic equipment widely available to the general public, to converse with witnesses and receive documentary testimony and physical evidence.
The amendment allows for public bodies to meet by teleconference, video conference, and other electronic technologies.
Teleconference and video conference services that are available to local governments could include such products as: FreeConferenceCall, GoToMeeting, Zoom, Facebook Live, GoogleMeets, Skype, Webex, AnyMeeting, JoinMe, and eztalks. The public can be provided access to the meeting through whichever means is selected.
All actions taken through an electronic, teleconference, web, or video meeting during this period of time will have the same effect as if they were conducted during an in-person meeting.
The amendment did not repeal or suspend any provisions of the Ohio Open Meetings Act, or alter any requirements for administrative hearings. As a result, all other provisions of the Open Meetings Act are applicable such as ensuring that minutes of all electronic meetings are kept and prepared, or swearing witnesses for administrative hearings where testimony is taken.
This action by the Ohio legislature will ensure that elected officials can continue to meet and make decisions and residents can watch, monitor and stay informed of rapidly changing events in their communities.