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.

 

 

The Legislature should follow Georgia’s Open Records Act

 By Richard T. Griffiths

Since the beginning of the Georgia Open Records Act, the Legislature has exempted itself from the state’s Sunshine Laws. Two identical bills, submitted by Gov. Brian Kemp’s floor leaders in the House and Senate, would fix that.

If passed, Senate Bill 503 and House Bill 1159 would amend the Official Code of Georgia to require “the General Assembly, including its individual members, committee, commissions, and offices…” to comply with the state Open Records Act.

With the Legislature on hiatus and lawmakers in self-quarantine because of the COVID-19 coronavirus, no action is imminent. Meanwhile, some political watchers are questioning the true intent of the legislation. Is it just political gamesmanship? Worse, is it an attempt by lawmakers to get their open records exemption on the record?

Richard T. Griffiths, GFAF president emeritus

At the moment, the state’s strongest legal rationale for why the General Assembly is exempt from the Open Records Act — as a recent court case demonstrated — is that the Legislature is not explicitly mentioned in the Act. The state argues that through that omission, legislators effectively exempted themselves from the law they created. If SB 503 and HB 1159 fail, would that bolster the case that the Open Records Act shouldn’t apply to the Legislature? Could lawmakers say that they considered including the General Assembly in the state’s Sunshine Laws, but then decided against it?

These are skeptical views of how business gets done at the statehouse. But we at the Georgia First Amendment Foundation have a more optimistic perspective. We think the very existence of these transparency proposals is welcome news for Georgians who want more openness in our state government.

Clear power, opaque processes

The General Assembly has an operating budget of about $45 million a year, and it helps decide what happens to a $27.4 billion budget in taxpayer dollars. Lawmakers set tax policy and make laws regulating life for all Georgians, including professional standards for occupations. But the Legislature isn’t required to be transparent about its documented processes, procedures or precisely how the money set aside for legislative business is allocated.

Much of what the Legislature does happens in the open, but that’s largely at the discretion of lawmakers. The rules that govern transparency in each chamber and committee are just that, rules, not laws. And arcane chamber rules are often hard for the layman to track down. That’s led to tension with journalists, advocacy groups and the public when legislators hold back on showing exactly how the sausage gets made.

Legislators make the case that they shouldn’t have to hand over sensitive emails and letters they get from constituents back home. They point out that House and Senate leaders effectively honor open records requests on such matters as expense accounts.

But the reality is that the Legislature’s open records exemption allows state senators and representatives to hide contacts with special interests and lobbyists, as well as bad behavior. Efforts by journalists to understand the extent of sexual harassment settlements involving senators, for example, were thwarted, even as the Senate made changes to its policy on sexual harassment and reviewed the case of an accused senator in secret.

The public has a right to know

The foundation applauds the governor and his floor leaders for proposing legislation that would make the Open Records Act apply to the General Assembly. When lawmakers return to the statehouse, the governor and his floor leaders need to twist some arms to get these bills turned into law. And citizens should take action, too. Email and call your legislators to remind them that the General Assembly’s business is the public’s business.

If the coronavirus crisis teaches us anything, it is that knowledge is power. And the people have the right to know what their elected representatives are doing. The public deserves to be informed about everything that is happening under the Gold Dome, not just what our elected officials decide we should know.

Richard T. Griffiths is president emeritus of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.