School boards: The end of the virtual public meeting? All is not lost
The concept of a virtual public meeting arose out of necessity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pursuant to Amended Substitute House Bill 197, Ohio’s General Assembly authorized emergency relief to the Open Meetings Act beginning March 25, 2020, and permitted public bodies to hold their meetings by teleconference, videoconference or any similar electronic technology means – which for many public entities meant through a variety of social media and meeting platforms. The virtual public meeting option was extended through July 1, 2021, with the passage of Substitute House Bill 404.
What started out as a necessity evolved, for some public bodies, into a convenience. There was an indication during the state budget legislative process that virtual public meetings might continue into the future. However, as the final version of the budget bill (House Bill 110) came together and passed in both chambers of the General Assembly, it did not contain the authority to convene public meetings virtually beyond July 1, 2021.
But, all is not lost. Even pre-COVID, though it was not as common a practice, public bodies were permitted to live-stream their meetings. In addition, public body members could participate remotely, for example, by calling in on a telephone conference line. While that example sounds almost prehistoric, a member could participate in the discussion and remain current on issues before the public body. However, the member’s remote presence would not count toward a quorum and the remote member could not vote. Additionally, for public bodies which elect to permit public participation, there is no legal requirement that participation occur in-person. A public body has discretion to set reasonable rules for public participation, including how an individual participates. Given the fact that the virtual public meeting authority is extinguished as of July 1, 2021, these pre-COVID options may resurface and we may see them in a slightly different form. Before changing board meeting procedures, boards may wish to revisit their board policy.
Since the spring of 2020, Bricker & Eckler has been providing a thoughtful facilitation service to public bodies using a technology platform, similar to a conference call, which considers the unique nature of public meetings. We will continue to assist clients who wish to live-stream or permit appropriate remote participation into the future as the concept of a public meeting continues to evolve.