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General Assembly Provides Temporary and Limited Authority for Public Bodies to Hold Open Meetings Re General Assembly Provides Temporary and Limited Authority for Public Bodies to Hold Open Meetings Re

General Assembly Provides Temporary and Limited Authority for Public Bodies to Hold Open Meetings Remotely

One of the foundations of our society is that government and governmental proceedings are transparent and accessible to the public. However, states of emergency and unprecedented global disasters (such as the COVID-19 pandemic) can make government transparency challenging. On March 27, 2020, Governor Mike DeWine signed House Bill 197 into law (the “HB 197”). HB 197 is a sweeping measure intended to provide emergency relief to Ohioans during the COVID-19 pandemic. One important provision in HB 197 addresses Ohioans’ access to “meetings” held by “public bodies.” This article briefly summarizes the state of public meetings and hearings in Ohio during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ohio Public Meetings and Hearings

A public body that wishes to hold a public meeting is governed by Ohio’s Open Meetings Law—Ohio Revised Code Section 121.22. The Open Meetings Law generally requires public bodies to take official action and conduct deliberations upon official business only in open meetings where the public may attend and observe. In HB 197, the terms “public body” and “meeting” have the same meanings defined in the Ohio Open Meetings Law and “hearing” is defined to include administrative hearings, hearings in compliance with the Ohio Administrative Procedure Act, and other hearings before public bodies.
 
House Bill 197

Among a number of other critical measures intended to reduce the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Ohio, HB 197 temporarily permits Ohio public bodies to conduct public meetings electronically. From March 9, 2020 (the date of Governor DeWine’s state of emergency declaration—Executive Order 2020-01D) until no later than December 1, 2020, public bodies can “hold and attend meetings and may conduct and attend hearings by means of teleconference, video conference, or any other similar electronic technology.”
Any resolution, rule, or formal action adopted remotely is to have the same effect as if it occurred during a standard in-person open meeting or hearing. Additionally, members of a public body that attend a meeting electronically shall be considered present, will count toward quorum, and be permitted to vote at the meeting or hearing.

There are a few requirements that must be met to comply with this limited exception:
 
  1. Public bodies must notify the public, the media who have requested notification, and parties required to be notified at least twenty-four hours in advance of the meeting or hearing by reasonable methods containing the time, location, and manner by which the meeting or hearing will be conducted;
  2. In emergency situations, public bodies must immediately notify news media who have requested notification and any parties required to be notified of the meeting or hearing;
  3. The public body must ensure that the public can “observe and hear” the discussions and deliberations. The public body must provide access to the meeting or hearing held under the scope of HB 197. This can include instructions to observe or hear proceedings by internet live stream, call in information for a teleconference, or information regarding broadcasts of proceedings over radio or television; and
  4. In the event of a hearing conducted electronically, the public body must establish an electronic method widely accessible to the public that would enable an individual to converse with witnesses and receive documentary testimony and physical evidence.
The most challenging of these requirements is the requirement allowing the public to “observe and hear the discussions and deliberations of all the members of the public body.” Given this requirement, we would recommend, if at all possible, that remote public meetings be conducted by videoconference, with members’ faces visible, rather than simply by teleconference.

Conclusion

In an emergency situation, public bodies must continue to maintain the transparency and accessibility of public meetings in accordance with law. Ice Miller has the professionals to help public bodies implement new technologies to facilitate access to public meeting while remaining in compliance with Ohio’s public records laws. To speak to an attorney, please contact Kip Wahlers, Matt Miller, or Lindsay Miller.

This publication is intended for general information purposes only and does not and is not intended to constitute legal advice. The reader should consult with legal counsel to determine how laws or decisions discussed herein apply to the reader’s specific circumstances.
 
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