Oklahoma allows public body members to attend meetings virtually, but with several caveats.
The location, address and phone number of the videoconference site must be posted in the meeting notice and agenda. Any member of the public should be permitted inside the meeting space.
“For a lot of us, we don’t want people inside our meeting room while we’re trying to attend a meeting with COVID,” Daniel McClure, general counsel for the Oklahoma Municipal League, told a legislative panel last week.
Attorneys and policy researchers pitched lawmakers on a variety of changes to the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act during a Thursday interim study, including:
- Loosening requirement for public body members to appear virtually in the district they represent;
- Allowing virtual attendance to count towards making a quorum;
- Allowing virtual attendees to participate in executive sessions;
- Permitting virtual meeting attendees to participate in public comment
Several of the act’s provisions were relaxed at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing entirely virtual meetings with remote public comment. These rules expired on Feb. 15.
Jeri Holmes, an attorney with Nonprofit Solutions, told lawmakers that eased virtual requirements would be particularly beneficial for rural Oklahomans, who often must drive hours round trip to attend a meeting in person.
“When we get someone from northeast Oklahoma, southeast Oklahoma, way out in the panhandle, they’re not able to come to the board meetings,” Holmes said. “We’re losing that type of participation. I call it the loss of brain power.”
Lawmakers discussed placing a percentage cap on the number of meetings a public body member may attend virtually in a calendar year. For example, a 75% requirement would require members to attend 9 of 12 meetings in person in a calendar year.
“I think a lot of good things happen when we meet in person, you can look at a person’s body language and have a heart-to-heart,” said Rep. Daniel Pae, R-Lawton. “But we also have to recognize in today’s day and age, things happen and sometimes you have to use the virtual option.”
Interim studies, which run from August through November, typically don’t generate formal reports or recommendations but can help guide future legislation. The 2023 legislative session convenes on Feb. 6.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Have you tuned into more virtual meetings over the past two and a half years? Could more be done to expand access and encourage participation? Let me know at Kross@Oklahomawatch.org.
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