OKLAHOMA CITY — Bipartisan support is growing for several bills that would once again allow Oklahoma’s governmental bodies to meet virtually and remotely.
State Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, the president pro tem, said he’d like lawmakers to fast track legislation allowing public bodies to meet virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic.
His measure, Senate Bill 1031, would restore remote meetings until Gov. Kevin Stitt terminates the state’s ongoing COVID-19 state of emergency.
Last year, state lawmakers briefly granted Oklahoma public bodies permission to meet virtually in a bid to protect participants from COVID-19. The modifications to the state’s Open Meetings Act were greeted with considerable enthusiasm by many appointees, elected officials and members of the public who welcomed the chance to participate safely and remotely.
But much to the ire of local and state officials, the temporary modifications expired Nov. 15. And, lawmakers, who apparently only expected the pandemic to last a few months, wrote the law in such a way that nobody could modify it without a special session.
At the time, Stitt said his hands were tied even though the pandemic raged and his state of emergency continued. His office said further legislation was required to fix the issue, but lawmakers never returned for a special session despite pleas from city, county and school leaders.
In a statement, Treat said the need remains for public bodies to continue to meet virtually, and his bill reinstates the flexibility until the pandemic is over.
“The temporary exemptions the Legislature passed last year gave public bodies flexibility to meet virtually and conduct business,” Treat said. “Equally important, it increased transparency of those bodies by providing increased access to many more Oklahomans. More parents were able to virtually attend their local school board meetings. More taxpayers were able to follow the work of their local city and county governments. And it was all because meetings moved online due to the pandemic.”
Treat said it makes sense to carry forward measures that brought “increased access and transparency” to all levels of government.
State Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City, said he supports allowing remote meetings to continue. In the brief time the law was in effect, government bodies made plans and learned how to make it work effectively.
He said it also increased public participation in meetings by making access more convenient.
“It’s just safer for everybody to be able to do that digitally,” Bennett said. “It’s probably one of those things that we should look at as a long-term option because this is 2021, and we have the technology to do that.”
He said state boards and commissions have members who come from all corners of the state.
“In a time like this when you have so many differing positions on the facts as far as health and your response to the virus, it’s just safer and easier to have that in place,” Bennett said. “I wish we had been able to extend it, and it hadn’t ended it all.”
However, he noted lawmakers still need to consider how to provide access for Oklahomans who do not have access to internet.
Andy Moore, director of Freedom of Information Oklahoma, said a number of bills have been filed approaching the issue in different ways. Some propose expanding the virtual meeting option through the end of 2021, while others want to extend it through March 2022.
“It’s hard to know exactly what’s going to happen,” Moore said. “But I think the last year has shown us that virtual meeting are not just possible, but necessary and good.”
He said lawmakers should clarify how meeting notices must be posted and whether meetings should be all virtual or a mix of in-person and remote. Also, there should be a way for elected officials to chat with the public immediately after meetings adjourn.
“I think overall it is good,” Moore said. “It’s not just an important thing during the pandemic, but it will probably be expected by the public going forward. I think public meetings should be accessible to the public, and that will likely take different forms. Legislation should be responsive to the needs of the public and should reflect transparency in everything we do.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.