Transparency in the time of coronavirus: Tips for virtual government meetings

By Sarah Brewerton-Palmer

As the world reacts to the coronavirus pandemic, public meetings have suddenly become a threat to public health. In response, governmental entities across the state and the country are transitioning from in-person meetings to virtual meetings. The following tips will help local governments and state agencies in Georgia protect people’s health while upholding their commitment to open government.

What the law requires on a regular day

Here’s what Georgia’s Open Meetings Act requires during governments’ normal operations. The public must have access to all open meetings held by a government entity. The Act applies broadly to every agency, board, department, office or commission, whether at the city, county, state or regional level. Meetings can only be closed to the public in a very limited set of circumstances listed in O.C.G.A. § 50-14-3 (see the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s Sunshine Laws: A Guide to Open Government in Georgia for more details). If a meeting does not fall into one of those exceptions, then it must be open to the public. Any action taken at a meeting that is improperly closed to the public is null and void.

Sarah Brewerton-Palmer

In addition to providing access, government entities must give the public advance notice of any meeting. A regularly scheduled meeting requires notice at least one week in advance. For any other meetings, officials must provide notice at least 24 hours in advance (though providing more notice whenever practicable is a good idea). Government entities must also post an agenda in advance of any open meeting. Except for certain statewide agencies, all open meetings must be held in person.

Open government laws were designed for flexibility during emergencies

During emergency situations, such as the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the state Open Meetings Act allows for deviation from these procedures in two ways. First, if officials need to act quickly, a government entity can hold an emergency meeting without providing 24 hours’ notice. The agency still must provide the public with advance notice of the meeting and post an agenda, and the agency must also record in the meeting minutes the specific circumstances that justified holding an emergency meeting. As the coronavirus pandemic continues, agencies may need to call emergency meetings for a variety of reasons. Agencies should provide public notice of these meetings as early as possible so that members of the public have a chance to attend and participate.

Second, when there is a public safety emergency such as the one presented by coronavirus, government officials who are otherwise required to meet in person can instead conduct their meetings by teleconference. This is particularly important now, when in-person meetings would likely violate recent guidance to avoid gatherings of 10 or more people.

Technology makes public access manageable, even in a crisis

Whether it’s an emergency meeting or a regularly scheduled meeting by teleconference, members of the public still must have access. Amid today’s emergency procedures, the Georgia First Amendment Foundation encourages all of Georgia’s public agencies to explore technological solutions such as live streaming and teleconferencing that allow the public to attend remotely. A wide variety of platforms enable virtual meetings where members of the public could watch or listen to the actions taken by their governmental representative. If your agency normally has a process for public comment at meetings, consider asking attendees of virtual meetings to submit comments by email before or during the meeting.

Now more than ever, transparency in government is vital to giving the public confidence in their governmental representatives and ensuring they understand and have the ability to weigh in on actions taken under emergency conditions. As governments at all levels change their operations in response to the coronavirus pandemic, they must do so in a way that maintains and promotes Georgians’ access to the public’s business.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation is available to help public officials, as well as citizens, as they navigate laws governing public access during this crisis. We encourage agencies to contact us with questions as they make the transition to virtual meetings. Reach us at info@gfaf.org.

Sarah Brewerton-Palmer, a foundation board member, is an attorney at Caplan Cobb in Atlanta.

RESOURCES

Enable public access with virtual meeting tools. Here are some options.

During the current coronavirus crisis, The Georgia First Amendment Foundation recommends that all government entities take advantage of the Open Meetings Act’s emergency procedures and meet by teleconference, rather than in person. Below is a list of platforms that provide free or relatively inexpensive livestream or teleconference services that can be used to run virtual meetings.

Many of these services allow a meeting host to selectively mute participants so that members can conduct a meeting without interruption. These services can also help facilitate a public comment period, whether by allowing members of the public to speak on the call or by soliciting comments through chat functions.

This list is not an endorsement of any of these services, and other options may be available. The foundation is providing this information as a resource only.

Webex by Cisco

  • Provides video streams or teleconferences with up to 200 participants
  • Features:
    • Participants can join through a desktop browser, mobile app, or by dialing in to a telephone number
    • Selective muting of participants
    • Recording ability
    • Includes a “Raise Your Hand” feature for participants joining online, which could be used to facilitate public comment
    • Chat function
  • Plans range from free to $26.95

Zoom

  • Provides video streams or teleconferences for up to 500 participants
  • Features
    • Participants can join through a desktop browser, mobile app, or by dialing in to a telephone number
    • Selective muting of participants
    • Recording ability
    • Chat function
  • Plans range from free to $20 per month

Meet by Google

  • Meet provides for a livestreamed video or audio feed for up to 250 participants
  • Features
    • Participants can join through a desktop browser, a mobile app, or by dialing into a telephone number
    • Selective muting of participants
    • Chat function
  • Google’s G Suite, which includes Meet teleconference and livestream service, has plans ranging from $6 to $25 per month

YouTube or Facebook livestream

  • YouTube and Facebook provide the ability to livestream video or audio feeds
  • Members of the public can watch the streamed meeting through a desktop browser or mobile app
  • Members of the public can participate using the comment or chat functions
  • These tools are free, though they are more suited for video than for an audio feed and require the use of a webcam

Local governments are already using tools like these to hold publicly accessible meetings during this crisis. Let us know what’s working for your agency.

 

 

One Reply to “Transparency in the time of coronavirus: Tips for virtual government meetings”

  1. Rhea(Ray) A Johnson Jr

    The First amendment Foundation has always done a great job of passing along information to the public; however even after an effort to strengthen Open Meetings/Open Records in 2012 no enforcement mechanism was ever provided simply because most elected officials and appointed officials don’t want Government to be open. We had yet another incident today in the DeKalb Board of Commissioners”meeting”of a Blind agenda item with NO public comment on the item except to include comments e-mailed to the meeting for publication in the minutes at a later date. Enforcement should be easier under a declared Emergency. The Governor can give the Attorney General Chris Carr the authority on a County by County basis to suspend County or City Attorney’s with pay for not enforcing Sunshine Laws.

    Reply

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