The Attorney General’s Office has issued an opinion regarding the effect of the Orders made by the Ohio Department of Health regarding COVID-19, the Open Meetings Act, and general health and safety. Below I will outline our office’s stance on that opinion and its implementation.
To start, it is important to note that government function cannot be halted all together, so the purpose of the AG’s opinion is to find a way to function as government entities as best we can while in the midst of this state of emergency. At the heart of this issue we will really be looking two provisions of the OMA: that public meetings be “open to the public” requirement, and that public officials appear “in-person” to public meetings requirement; as applicable to the current COVID-19, state of emergency.
The OMA requires all public meetings be “open to the public”. However, there is an Ohio Department of Heath Order limiting gatherings to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, as well as some guidance from the Center for Disease Control. In this time of public crisis, maintaining the openness and access of government business is vital. The OMA does not specifically dictate how a meeting is made “open to the public.” Therefore, it is reasonable to determine that the streaming of a public meeting, such as a Trustee meeting, could qualify under OMA as having a meeting be “open to the public”. The AG suggests this can be accomplished either by streaming the meeting online, or on the television. If a township was interested in switching to streaming its Trustee meetings during this crisis over the internet or television, then the township would have to provide notice for such a change. The notice would need to be published in the paper of general circulation pointing out the changes made in regards to the carrying out of the public meeting including the changes in accessibility; the notice would still have to meet the guidelines for public meetings. It is recommended that such a change also be posted on the doors of the former meeting place, and any bulletin boards the township may utilize. This streaming option does not have to be all or nothing however, it would be possible to keep the doors open and stream if the township wants to give residents the option of whether to watch the stream or come in person.
Furthermore, there is no directive saying the township should cancel any BZA or Zoning Commission meetings but, if the township decides to cancel any BZA or Zoning Commission meetings pursuant to the purposes of public health and safety, it would be appropriate at this time. The only consideration to be made, is if there is a statutory need to hold a hearing already in the works, which the township could ask the applicant to waive, or if someone requires a variance and is not willing to wait; in that case canceling or postponing such a hearing, could open the township to liability; however erring on the side of caution is a case the prosecutor’s office would be willing to fight out, if need be. Should the township decide not to cancel the BZA and zoning commission hearings or wishes to continue the Trustee meetings normally, there are some precautions that may be considered. Seating should be spread out, limiting the interaction between those in attendance; the CDC recommends about 6 feet of space; surfaces at the meeting place should be wiped down after and/or before the meeting; and the limiting of physical contact by not shaking hands, or engaging in any physical interaction. Ultimately caution is the name of the game, but if meeting attendance is low, by all means continue hosting the meetings normally.
The Second provision of the OMA requires meetings of public officials such as those of the township Trustees to be “in person.” Generally there is no exception to this in the OMA, even in events of declared emergency. However, in this limited circumstance, and should any member of the township board of Trustees have a serious pre-existing medical consideration, or be on a quarantine order, it may be possible for a public official to appear at a public meeting via videoconferencing. This is in a very rare case and under a recent interpretation of R.C. 121.22 and R.C. 3701.13, coupled with the guidelines put out by the CDC. If this is a path that a Trustee or Fiscal officer feels is absolutely necessary for their health and safety, please contact our office and we’ll try to determine with you the best way to proceed. We do advise against this, except in the most serious of circumstances.
These provisions presented to you are in compliance with R.C. 5502.24(B) which states that if there is a declared emergency and it becomes “imprudent, inexpedient, or impossible to conduct the affairs of a local government at the regular or usual place,” the governing body may meet at an alternative location and cease the operation of “time-consuming procedures and formalities.”