Public Meetings Update in the Face of COVID-19

The Local Government Law Group

From our 2020 Special Edition e-newsletter

During the COVID-19 emergency and social distancing, we’ve received questions on how Oregon governments can continue to comply with the public meetings laws over the next several weeks.  This article provides some generic advice and does not take into account particular council or board rules or charter provisions.  Please contact us to work together on your specific issues.

Public Meetings:  Public Access vs. Participation.  We have now seen emergency declarations take shape at all levels of government.  These declarations sometimes suspend certain regulations and help speed governmental responses.  However, remember that even in these unusual times, local governments must still operate within the confines of Oregon’s public meeting laws.  The general rule is that the public meetings law requires “open” meetings.  This “open meeting” requirement pertains to the public’s right to attend and observe your meetings.  Generally speaking, there is no general public right to participate in a meeting–or to provide comments or speak directly to the Council.

This is true for most public meetings, but it is not true for a specific subset of public meetings where the Council is dealing with “quasi-judicial” matters (such as an employment action appeal or a land use hearing), budgetary matters, or has otherwise promised the public a right to participate.  If you have one of these types of meetings and you are trying to promote social distancing, you should contact your legal counsel to discuss the best way to proceed during the COVID-19 emergency.

Virtual Meetings:  Some Considerations Remote, virtual, or phone-in meetings remain a good option for your governing body, so long as you take into account these types of meetings where the public is entitled to participate and address how the public will provide comments and participate.  Remember also that if anyone requests any ADA accommodations (such as a request to have a sign language interpreter be on screen during a video meeting or a request for closed captioning), you must be prepared to provide a reasonable accommodation.

Here are some options your Council or Board should consider:

  1. Determine whether you need to have the meeting at all.  You can always cancel or reschedule a meeting.
  2. If you have business that is required, you can trim down the agenda to just the essential business.
  3. If you must have a meeting, consider social distancing requirements for everyone (including the governing body).  Some or all policy-makers can call-in to the meeting and participate via phone so that the dais is not full.
  4. If a meeting needs to take place, institute social distancing measures for the audience as well – essentially capping the number of attendees.  You can also direct others to the live stream, or to another area within City hall where you can set up a phone or video link.
  5. Institute a written public comment procedure for your public comment agenda item.
  6. If you do have a public hearing agenda item, you can institute a procedure where folks are required to give notice of their intent to participate and the meeting location is adjusted to allow those folks access to the live meeting.  In other words, you might shuffle folks between the remote location that is using the conference line and the meeting room (to maintain social distancing).  Or you could set up a public computer that allows participation with the governing body via skype or Zoom.
  7. Provide adequate notice to the public regarding any of the above meeting mechanisms you decide to use.  The agenda can be amended and annotated to note the special procedures being used.  Posting a sign at the meeting room with these mechanisms is also a good idea.
  8. Any agenda and meeting notice should contain a provision that requests anyone with cold or COVID-19 symptoms to please stay out of the meeting.
  9. Providing/distributing agendas and meeting packets with greater lead-time will be more important under these meeting mechanisms.