As courthouses and city halls close, there is a logistical problem that arises for governmental boards — just how does the county commission or city council meet?
And, just as important, how do its members host a public meeting and comply with the Kansas Open Meetings Act?
Guidance from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and an executive order from Gov. Laura Kelly, limits the number of people in one place at one time to 10. Social distancing guidelines ask those people to stay at least 6 feet apart.
According to Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA) requires public bodies to be "open to the public." Ordinarily, that requirement is met by allowing members of the public to enter the room where the meeting is taking place so they can listen and observe. But public health requirements to slow the spread of COVID-19, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation not to gather in groups of more than 10 people, makes many in-person gatherings impossible or inadvisable.
The answer to the problem of public governmental guidelines is popping up in meeting notices and agendas. Now appearing are internet links for video conferencing and phone numbers for voice conferences.
For some area government bodies, this is nothing really new. The McPherson City Commission has posted video of its meetings to YouTube, while the Newton USD 373 board of education started streaming live to Facebook on its own earlier this year, after now board member Mallory Morton was streaming those meetings to her own Facebook page for more than a year before being elected.
Lance Gormley, a private resident of Newton, started video uploads to YouTube of Newton City Commission meetings earlier this year.
Now, however, the onus is on governmental entities to do it themselves.
The Harvey County Commission hosted its first online stream this week, making use of the service Zoom to provide video and telephone access. The commission met in the basement of the courthouse as the meeting was streamed.
Under new guidelines issued by the state, each entity will notify the public of the internet location of the meeting during the meeting notification process.
The attorney general’s office has proposed formal rules for state and local governments to ensure their meetings remain open to the public during "social distancing" emergency restrictions on gathering in person. Basically, those new rules require for broadcast of the meeting, preferably with video, on either television of the internet or by audio by telephone conferencing.
The guidelines require that those services be provided by the governmental entity free — for example, the local county commission cannot charge a fee for listening or watching the meeting.
"During a time of declared emergency when lives are disrupted, many people are apprehensive, and rumors can run rampant, the importance of ensuring openness and transparency in the government decision-making process is even greater than usual," Schmidt said. "An important way for public bodies to provide reassurance is to go the extra mile to ensure their actions are transparent during the time of emergency. This new guidance will help state and local government bodies throughout Kansas operate transparently even when the public cannot gather in person for meetings."
The new regulation for complying with the KOMA during an emergency provides as follows:
• The KOMA remains in full force and effect unless explicitly suspended by emergency order of the governor. The governor has not currently suspended any requirement of the KOMA.
• If the members of the public body themselves are not physically gathered in one place — for example, if the meeting itself is conducted by telephone or videoconferencing — then members of the public must be able to join in the electronic conferencing in order to listen to or observe the meeting.
• If the members of the public body are physically gathered for a meeting but cannot allow members of the public to be present because of emergency limitations, then the public body must take steps to allow members of the public to listen to or observe the meeting by telephone, videoconferencing, television broadcast, or similar method.
• When the public is participating in a public meeting by telephone or other medium of interactive communication, members of the body must take steps to help the public understand the proceedings despite not being physically present. For example, each speaker in the meeting should identify herself by name before speaking or voting so remote listeners or observers can more readily know who is speaking; likewise, each motion should be clearly stated and each vote tally clearly announced.
• The procedure for any executive session must be clearly explained at the outset of a meeting.
• There must be no cost for the public to participate.
• There must be a method for distributing any agenda or other written materials that ordinarily could be picked up in person by members of the public attending the meeting. Those procedures must be explained to the public before the meeting begins.
In addition to the regulation itself, which will be legally binding, the attorney general also has issued a best practices document with additional actions that are strongly recommended. These recommendations include:
• Before shifting to new meeting procedures that do not allow in-person public attendance, produce and widely disseminate to the general public through news media, social media, email and other means a notice explaining why and how the ordinary meeting procedures will change, how the public may receive notice of meetings, and how the public may continue to participate in meetings.
• Audio or video record the meeting and post to the public body’s website so members of the public who could not participate later can review what occurred.
• Post to a public website any materials that will be distributed during the meeting, such as any agenda, agenda packet, or presentation.