With state mandates restricting large gatherings due to COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, or even leaving the house unless necessary, local governing officials are grappling with how to maintain public meetings.
Some entities in the Chagrin Valley have opted to cancel certain meetings unless absolutely necessary with concerns about in-person requirements for board or council members under the Ohio Open Meetings Act.
After Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton ordered the limitation of mass gatherings earlier this month in a press conference with Gov. Mike DeWine, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost offered guidance to local governments on how to proceed with public meetings.
“In the interest of stopping the spread of this highly communicable disease, both [Dr. Acton and Gov. DeWine] urged Ohioans to stay home and avoid unnecessary contact with one another. Thus, we are now presented with a situation in which a public body might not be able to comply with both the terms of the order and the Open Meetings Act,” Mr. Yost said in a March 13 letter to local officials. “Stopping the business of government is not an option, and we must now reconcile the two.
“As we must always do when faced with the application of two different – and in this situation, somewhat competing – statutes, we must give effect to both,” he continued.
He explained “in this limited circumstance” that it would be reasonable for local officials to read the Open Meeting Act’s in-person requirement “as permitting a member of a public body to appear at a public meeting via teleconference.”
While his advise may be helpful to some municipalities, others are bound by specific laws that prohibit this interpretation while awaiting the results of House Bill 557, which would allow public officials to meet via teleconferencing during a public health crisis, as introduced by Ohio Rep. Lisa Sobecki, D-Toledo, on March 16.
Village of Chagrin Falls
Chagrin Falls Council President Erinn Grube said that while the attorney general is “offering some sensible options” for the issue at hand, the village charter explicitly requires council to meet in person in the Village Hall. Therefore, she said, council members decided to cancel their upcoming meetings in March, waiting on action from HB 557.
“What we decided is meeting in public right now, as a group, is not advisable,” Mrs. Grube said of Village Council. “My concern, which I shared with the [law director] and council and everybody else, was that if we meet in person, even if we can social distance, we’re then asking people to break the guidance that they’ve been given by the [state] health department, and that didn’t seem like the true spirit of our open meetings.”
Mrs. Grube said that while the charter requires in-person meetings, the village law director is looking into whether council can work around this. She added that the village does “fortunately have a charter committee that will convene at the beginning of 2021.
“We will probably ask what adjustments can be made to the charter at that time, but at this point, the lawyer is looking through it,” she said.
In the meantime, Mrs. Grube said, the village is looking into the possibility of offering web conferencing to residents when the time comes. She said that no matter what option they choose, public access is at the “forefront.”
“I anticipate we’ll offer a web conference option,” she said, “but we also want to make sure that we offer an easy dial-in option so people can listen on their phones if that’s more convenient for their technology situation.”
Only City Council and committee members will attend government meetings in Solon.
Mayor Edward H. Kraus said the city’s decision is based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines, which recommends no more than 10 people in a room and that people be at least 6 feet apart.
He said the public will be invited virtually to all meetings, which will be live-streamed on the city’s website, SolonOhio.org.
The city will utilize technology such as Zoom, a video conferencing app, to allow participation, Law Director Thomas G. Lobe said. Residents are asked to submit their questions and concerns in writing in advance.
Mayor Kraus added that the city’s medical guidance comes from the CDC, the Ohio Department of Health and the Cuyahoga County Board of Public Health.
Director of Communications for the Orange City School District Lou DeVincentis said that based on the attorney general’s advice, the Orange Board of Education will hold its next March 30 meeting, but it will be closed to the public for physical attendance.
He explained that with five board members, the treasurer, superintendent and himself operating the camera, the meeting is already at eight people in one room, excluding other administration.
Mr. DeVincentis said that meetings will be live-streamed to the district website to maintain public access and that the board will still record the audio of the meeting.
“The hope is to keep the audience to under [that] 10 threshold,” he said, acknowledging that everything is in flux and that there is no way to know about people’s health situations or what Gov. DeWine will do next.
As for public comment, Mr. DeVincentis said, “I think we won’t have a public comment section. We’ll say if you need to speak, then please contact the board president and we’ll address your concern accordingly. We’re trying to figure things out as we go along. Unless you’re a major TV network, it’s hard to have people call in with public comment; it would be a hard hurdle to get over.”
He added that board member Melanie Weltman, who recently returned from international travel, will be able to attend the meetings because her self-quarantine was completed by March 14.
For Bentleyville, Village Council meetings have switched entirely to teleconferencing.
Council President Ken Kvacek said the village postponed its council meeting, which was originally scheduled for March 18, to March 25 to assure that there was time to give proper public notice of the switch to teleconferencing.
The Village Finance Committee meeting, which is typically scheduled before the council meeting, was canceled. Instead, Mr. Kvacek said, the village fiscal officer, Nickol Sell, has provided the accounts payable to the council members separately for reviewal and fiscal discussions, if needed, were to be during the council meeting.
Moving forward, Mr. Kvacek said he has been in discussions with Mayor Leonard Spremulli about how to continue the committee meetings.
“We will put it to each one of the committees for their discussion and review when they want to resume,” he said of the routine committees like the Streets and Safety or the Parks, Beautification and Facilities committees. He said as-needed committees, like the Utilities and Planning and Zoning committees, will remain as such.
He said the hope is to utilize teleconferencing for the committees, as well.
Bainbridge Township Trustees held their Monday night meeting as usual, in person and open to the public, but with a few alterations.
“Right now, in person is the way our prosecutor has told us [our meetings] should be,” Trustee Chairwoman Kristina O’Brien said, explaining that until there is change to state law under HB 557, the township must follow the Open Meetings Act.
She said the trustees made a few adjustments to the agenda, like removing public interaction and department head reports, to shorten the meeting and limit exposure of township employees and residents.
If residents wish to attend the meetings, she said surfaces have been disinfected and chairs have been spaced appropriately to accommodate social distancing.
Mrs. O’Brien said that while the next board meeting isn’t until April 13, it is possible additional meetings may be needed before then while the state is still under the stay-at-home order that went into effect Monday night. These meetings, she said, are likely to be kept “bare bones,” focusing on the essentials only like paying bills, employee salaries or approving training requests for fire and police.
She said that because of the township’s requirements for in-person and open meetings, they cannot use teleconferencing in place of their regular meetings, as suggested by the attorney general, “but the legislature hears it, and hopefully they’ll resolve it.
“We are in uncharted waters,” Mrs. O’Brien said. “I think everyone’s just trying to implement processes that assist in minimizing exposure to this virus.”