LEXINGTON, Ky. (WTVQ) – Cities and counties who were struggling with ways to balance social distancing while still abiding by open meetings laws got some advice Wednesday from the state attorney general.
In his opinion, Attorney General Daniel Cameron said public agencies are not required to identify a primary physical location for video teleconference meetings given the urgent need for social distancing during the public health crisis.
However, while the state of emergency is in effect, agencies are required to identify a website, television station, or other means that the public can access to view the meeting.
The opinion notes that public agencies must continue to provide critical services during the emergency declaration and are required to conduct public business in open meetings and permit news media coverage of all meetings.
However, providing a physical location for such meetings is not currently feasible given public health recommendations and guidelines for COVID-19.
Protecting themselves, government workers and citizens while still providing timely information and services has been challenging for city and county leaders, especially when it comes to meeting to carry out government business.
City and county Web pages, Facebook pages and other options are getting extra use to serve as vital message boards for communities.
Some governments met this week in emergency sessions and agreed not to meet again unless circumstances arose that require it.
And in the future, some towns are turning to technology so leaders can meet, even if by long distance, to carry out business.
According to the Advocate-Messenger newspaper in Danville, city leaders there are considering a platform that will allow city commissioners to meet from their home or offices via teleconferencing and have as many as 250 tune in.
That discussion came this week as the commission approved an increase in the insurance premium tax from 8 percent to 10 percent to raise an estimated $500,000 for pay raises police, fire and other emergency responders, the Advocate-Messenger reported.
The taxes are paid by all life, stock and mutual insurance companies doing business in Kentucky.
City Manager David Milliron said staff is testing technology that would allow up to 250 people to participate in an online meeting, with only the commission talking unless the public is recognized. The newspaper reported the system would not go into place until “we get guidance from the state, and conference with our city attorney …”
“We haven’t tested it — the biggest issue is whether or not we can isolate the commission, make sure that you all have tested that your faces are seen, because you all will be remote,” the newspaper quoted Milliron. “You will not be in city hall … and then figure out then how to communicate” with the public through some kind of platform for participation.
The equipment won’t be delivered until the end of this week, the city manager told the board. “We are very much trying to do what we can as quickly as we can, but we don’t even have the technology yet. I don’t even have that technology in my own office. We’re scrambling as quickly as we can to address that. I don’t think anyone foresaw that we would be in this situation, you know, even a week ago,” the newspaper quoted Milliron as saying.
Milliron said this is why “we’ve been a lot more aggressive on making sure (city business) is being published on city hall’s Facebook” page.
“We will be open to the public via telephone, email, we have contact-us forms on our website at danvilleky.gov. We also, for utility payments, have drop-payments here,” Milliron said, referring to the closing of city hall to public visitors. Payments may also be made online at the city’s website.
Milliron said the city is doing what it can to protect those who will continue providing services to the public. “We’re in uncharted territory. This is an abundance of caution, but we have to keep our staff safe and healthy so we can continue to keep the government in operation,” the Messenger-Advocate reported.
Public records were not discussed, but Milliron said during the 10 a.m. emergency press conference held at Boyle County Public Library that no open records requests would be processed while the city is operating under the emergency declaration.
City Attorney Stephen Dexter stressed the city would continue to act in the spirit of open records and transparency.
“I can only state that staff will work to manage in the spirit of the open records and meeting law, to comply and act in as transparent of a way so that the public can view the development of public policy during the state of emergency — which is somewhat difficult and challenging,” the newspaper quoted Dexter as saying.
He added that by the ordinance enactment “and emergency powers” given to the city manager, “he will be the conduit of communication to business and the community, and we expect that communication to be high. And the staff will work in the transparency that’s allowed and expected under the law. We’re just in uncharted territories to figure out the best manner to do that,: Dexter was quoted as saying.