We are all in uncharted waters as we navigate our way through the flood of the coronavirus pandemic.
We are having to learn news ways of doing things.
We are working differently, shopping differently, greeting one another differently — living differently.
None of us knows how long this will last or how much it may lead to permanent changes in our lives.
It is no surprise then that government is having to navigate these new waters as well and is having to learn how to do things differently.
This week, the Attorney General’s office, top First Amendment lawyers, an elected county official and a media representative addressed the challenges faced by local governments trying to balance the practice of social distancing with the increased need for openness and transparency.
Of course, the Georgia First Amendment Foundation Government Transparency in a Crisis Town Hall was a virtual event with local government officials, attorneys, the media and the general public joining the video conference.
As president of the First Amendment Foundation and the media representative, I was joined on the panel by Jennifer Colangelo, Georgia Office of the Attorney General; Lisa Cupid, Cobb County Commission; Tom Clyde, First Amendment attorney with Kilpatrick Townsend; and Sarah Brewerton-Palmer, First Amendment attorney with Caplan Cobb.
Richard T. Griffiths, GFAF president emeritus, served as moderator. Kathy Brister, GFAF vice president, organized the event and following it put together a comprehensive Q&A based on questions and answers provided by the panel.
Here are a few highlights from Kathy’s recap:
Are public meetings conducted via video conference and teleconference considered open under Georgia law? And what about other channels like Facebook Live and public access TV?
Yes. For a meeting to be open under the law when in-person meetings aren’t feasible, the public should be able to watch a live video broadcast via television; watch a live video feed on their computers; listen live via their computers; or dial in via telephone. The telephone dial-in is important in areas where broadband access is limited or for citizens who don’t have computers.
Is it acceptable under the law if every government official is in a different place for a virtual meeting? Is that still a legal meeting?
Yes. As long as the officials are all together electronically; the officials are able to talk with each other; and the public is able to watch or listen in real time, the meeting is legal.
If a local government body holds a meeting without public attendance, records it, and posts the recorded meeting later, does that comply with the state’s Open Meetings Law?
No. That is not equivalent to giving people the ability to watch or listen to a meeting while it is happening.
The Open Meetings Act requires officials to move an overflowing in-person meeting to a larger room. Does that same requirement apply to virtual meetings? Does a local government have to expand their teleconference capabilities, for example, if many people want to dial in or log in to a public meeting?
Officials have to do their best to make a good-faith effort to open the meeting to as many people as possible. Agencies should anticipate a surge in public interest right now; more people may want to virtually attend a meeting than normally would attend a regular, in-person meeting. A video conference, a teleconference, or both are acceptable under the law.
If public officials decide to meet in person, can they keep a member of the public or media from attending the meeting?
Doubtful. There would need to be a legitimate emergency justification for the in-person attendance of officials, without permitting the in-person attendance of the public or representatives of the public. Additionally, at a minimum, the meeting would have to be accessible live via video or audio.
You can find the full report online at https://bit.ly/3bzgPeb
CNHI Deputy National Editor Jim Zachary is the editor of the Valdosta Daily Times and president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.