Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the work of public entities had to continue. The Amended Surrogate Home Bill 197 made this possible, by amending the requirements of RC 121.22 to allow public bodies to meet by teleconference, videoconference or other similar technological means, which often meant via a variety social media and meeting platforms. The ability to meet virtually has been extended until July 1, 2021 by the legislature through Substitute House Bill 404.
Despite efforts during the state budget process to further extend (and even make permanent) the option of virtual meetings to public bodies, this provision was not included in the final version of the budget (House Bill 110 ). As of July 1, 2021, public bodies can no longer meet virtually and comply with the open meeting law.
But all is not lost. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, public bodies could broadcast their meetings live. In fact, many had already done so and were well equipped to weather the COVID-19 storm. Ohio law also allowed members of a public body to participate remotely, as long as the remotely participating members were not in the quorum and did not vote. The Open Meetings Act has never required personal attendance at public meetings.
Although members of a public body must be present in person to be counted as a quorum and to vote, that does not mean that the end of teleconferencing and videoconferencing is here. It is expected that many public bodies will continue to live-stream or record their meetings to make them more widely accessible to the public.
An additional challenge is the ability of a chartered municipality to adopt a charter provision that dictates how its meetings will be held. Ohio courts have repeatedly held that a municipality’s charter trumps the Open Meetings Act when the charter describes specific ways for a municipality to ensure open and transparent government, including the conduct of public officials. meetings and when and where a meeting should take place. It is not clear from state case law that this would allow a chartered municipality to pass a provision allowing virtual meetings that could conflict with the Open Meetings Act, but a chartered municipality adopting a provision allowing its members to meet virtually should be discussed with legal counsel.