Should Council Meetings Be Conducted Remotely? At Least 2 Members Say Yes

Mar 17, 2020

At least two Cincinnati City Council members want the group to hold remote meetings for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Council Member Jeff Pastor sent an e-mail to City Solicitor Paula Boggs Muething requesting remote meetings for council and committees, and Council Member Chris Seelbach replied that he completely agreed.

"For the safety of the public, city staff and the citizens we serve, we must do all that we can to stop the spread of the coronavirus," Pastor wrote. "As elected officials, we must lead by example."

Mayor John Cranley on Monday issued an emergency order "to exclude the public from physically attending city council and committee meetings for 30 days."  The public would be able to watch meetings on CitiCable or a livestream on the city's website.  Those options are available now. 

The city council chamber has been arranged to allow social distancing for the mayor, council members and staff for Wednesday's scheduled meeting.

Attorney General Dave Yost issued a letter last week to local officials concerning COVID-19 and Ohio's Open Meetings Act (OMA).

"Under this very limited fact pattern, there may be a basis for local public bodies to use electronic means to meet and comply with the law," Yost wrote.

He suggested local officials discuss the matter with legal council before making any decisions.

Boggs Muething, in a letter to the mayor and council members, cautioned that the state attorney general doesn't represent local governments and his letter "is neither mandatory nor precedential."

"Thus, it does not serve as a bar to keep plaintiffs from filing OMA challenges, not does it require a reviewing court to follow attorney general guidance," Boggs Muething wrote.

The solicitor said that some individual members considered "higher risk" for COVID-19 may be able to participate remotely. But her opinion doesn't suggest that would include the mayor and all council members.

Any member of a public body, including City Council Members or the Mayor, may participate remotely if: (1) the public official identifies in writing that remote participation is necessary because of issues reasonably connected to Department of Health orders or guidance concerning COVID-19; (2) the public is provided reasonable notice of remote participation; and (3) the public body is able to provide for remote participation that allows the public to hear the discussions and deliberations of all the members even those participating remotely.

The attorney general said that even in a time of a public health crisis that public access to public bodies "is still vital."

"Although the OMA does not specifically dictate how a meeting is made 'open' to the public, in the interest of complying with both (Ohio Health Director) Dr. (Amy) Acton's order and the OMA a meeting should be made 'open' to the public by live-streaming it through the internet or on television," Yost wrote. "If a public body gives the public access to a meeting electronically and the members of the body appear telephonically, the body must still ensure that the public is able to hear the discussions and deliberations of all the members, even those who are present via telephonic means."

Yost said all other requirements of the OMA still apply, including public notice and taking minutes of the meeting.