Koehler introduces legislation that would allow public entities to resume virtual meetings

A Clark County state representative introduced legislation Friday that would temporarily allow public bodies, including local governments, to conduct their required meetings virtually.

State Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield, along with Brigid Kelly, D-Cincinnati, introduced a bill that would extend the period in which the in-person meeting requirement as part of the Ohio Open Meetings act would be waived.

“I have watched our local governments fight tooth and nail for the last year to host their required meetings and master the virtual meeting learning curve,” Koehler said. “This immediate and temporary relief is needed to allow these important organizations to continue to provide for our communities.”

The Ohio Open Meetings Act, meant to encourage transparency in government, requires public entities to conduct all public business in open meetings that the public may attend and observe.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Ohio General Assembly temporarily waived the in-person meeting requirement, allowing for remote gatherings. This exception to the Open Meetings Act expired July 1 of last year.

Koehler and Kelly’s bill would seek to renew this exception until July 1 of this year, according to a news release.

“Local governments need the option to meet virtually, so that they can meet in a way that is both safe and accessible,” Kelly said. “This bill will help provide much needed relief to local public officials throughout our state and better enable them to safely continue to do the work of serving our communities while ensuring the public access to their own government.”

The new bill comes at a time when communities across the state are reeling from a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases and COVID related hospitalizations reach their highest point during the pandemic as omicron becomes the dominate variant.

“As new variants emerge, we have to keep moving forward. Virtual meetings allow key staff members to attend meetings when sickness or quarantine keeps them home,” said Clark County commissioner Rick Lohnes.

“County Boards of Commissioners must have at least two voting members present to pass a resolution,” explained Clark County Commissioner and Board President Melanie Flax Wilt. “Virtual technology allows us to conduct real-time public meetings that keep county government running despite health concerns. Nothing can take the place of face-to-face meetings, but this option allows commissioners and the public to engage without unnecessary health risks.”

If the bill is enacted, public bodies would still be required to establish a quorum for voting purpose and give 24 hours notice prior to all public meetings.

Likewise, public meetings would still be required to host witnesses and receive evidence in accordance with other Open Meetings Act requirements, the news release stated.

The bill now awaits a committee referral.

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