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.
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 [email protected].