Complying with the open meetings law during the COVID-19 health emergency
Remote Public Meetings Toolkit (PDF) By Dane County - March 26, 2020
Local Government Options for Conducting Meetings Remotely (PDF) By Curt Witynski - March 22, 2020
We have received many questions on the ability of municipal governing bodies to dissuade the public from attending otherwise open meetings and/or use technology to conduct virtual meetings during the health emergency. We have asked the Governor to issue an executive order relaxing certain aspects of the state’s open meetings law during the COVID-19 health emergency similar to steps taken in California and Massachusetts. Read our letter here.
We received some guidance March 16, 2020 from the Wisconsin Department of Justice on the following question: May municipal governmental bodies practice social distancing and still comply with the open meetings law by meeting via telephone or video conferencing?
Answer: Yes. The Wisconsin Department of Justice issued an advisory on March 16, 2020, addressing this issue and stating that: “Governmental bodies typically can meet their open meetings obligations, while practicing social distancing to help protect public health, by conducting meetings via telephone conference calls if the public is provided with an effective way to monitor such calls (such as public distribution, at least 24 hours in advance, of dial-in information for a conference call).” The advisory emphasizes that “When an open meeting is held by teleconference or video conference, the public must have a means of monitoring the meeting. DOJ concludes that, under the present circumstances, a governmental body will typically be able to meet this obligation by providing the public with information (in accordance with notice requirements) for joining the meeting remotely, even if there is no central location at which the public can convene for the meeting. A governmental body conducting a meeting remotely should be mindful of the possibility that it may be particularly burdensome or even infeasible for one or more individuals who would like to observe a meeting to do so remotely—for example, for people without telephone or internet access or who are deaf or hard of hearing—and appropriate accommodations should be made to facilitate reasonable access to the meeting for such individuals.”
The advisory notes that “providing only remote access to an open meeting is not always permissible” and that “the type of access that constitutes reasonable access in the present circumstances, in which health officials are encouraging social distancing (including avoiding large public gatherings) in order to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 may be different from the type of access required in other circumstances.” It concludes with the discomforting fact that ultimately, whether a meeting is reasonably accessible is a factual question that must be determined on a case-by-case basis.
Read the Wis Department of Justice guidance.