Municipalities: The end of the virtual public meeting? All is not lost
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the work of public entities had to continue. Amended Substitute House Bill 197 made that possible, by modifying the requirements of R.C. 121.22 to permit public bodies to meet by teleconference, videoconference or any other similar technology means, which often meant through a variety of social media and meeting platforms. The ability to meet virtually was extended until July 1, 2021, by the legislature via Substitute House Bill 404.
Despite efforts during the state budget process to further extend (and even make permanent) the virtual meeting option to public bodies, that provision was not included in the final version of the budget (House Bill 110). Effective July 1, 2021, public bodies can no longer meet virtually and satisfy the Open Meetings Act.
But all is not lost. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, public bodies were able to livestream their meetings. In fact, many had already done so and were well-equipped to weather the COVID-19 storm. Ohio law also allowed members of a public body to participate remotely, so long as the remotely participating members were not counted as part of the quorum and didn’t vote. The Open Meetings Act has never required in-person attendance at public meetings.
While members of a public body must be present in-person to be counted in the quorum and to vote, that doesn’t mean that the end of teleconference and videoconference is here. It’s expected that many public bodies will continue to livestream or otherwise record their meetings to make them more widely available to the public.
An additional wrinkle is the ability of a charter municipality to adopt a charter provision that dictates how its meetings will be held. Ohio courts have held on a number of occasions that a municipality’s charter trumps the Open Meetings Act when the charter outlines specific ways a municipality will ensure open and transparent government, including the conduct of meetings and when and where a meeting must be held. It is unclear from home-rule case law that doing so would allow a charter municipality to adopt a provision that allows virtual meetings that could be in conflict with the Open Meetings Act, but a charter municipality adopting a provision to allow its members to meet virtually should be discussed with legal counsel.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bricker & Eckler has provided a thoughtful facilitation service to public bodies using a technology platform, similar to a conference call that considers the unique nature of public meetings. We will continue to assist clients who wish to livestream or permit remote participation as the concept of a public meeting continues to evolve.