The notion that citizens should be active participants in our democracy is one of the cornerstones of American government. As Abraham Lincoln said, our system is “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Texas law has further enshrined the concept of self-determination through protections to ensure that the people have the ability to see what those who govern them are doing, especially when it comes to how our tax dollars are spent. This is the principle behind the Texas Open Meetings Act.
The spirit of the law is to provide more transparency in government. Thus all government meetings in Texas are held in open session. The reality, however, is that while all meetings are officially open, they may be less so in practical terms. There are many hurdles to public attendance including geography, schedule, comfort, safety, etc.
On March 16, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Governor Abbott suspended the in person requirement of the Open Meetings Act, hurling special purpose districts into unfamiliar waters. How do you continue to conduct business when it is no longer safe to meet in person? Some cancelled meetings, but most figured out ways to conduct meetings via teleconference, or video conference.
In the two months since the initial declaration, most government entities have held meetings. Like most things during this time, they took a very different shape. Rather than huddling around a conference room table, boards and consultants met from their kitchens, living rooms, or home offices, on their computers, tablets and phones. It was an overnight transition from the way things have always been done to a completely new model.
As the health emergency drags into its third month, some boards are beginning to consider what the new normal will be. Some are eager to get back to business as usual, while others are taking a more conservative approach.
Adding a remote component to a meeting lends flexibility, transparency and inclusion to meetings. But it is not simply a choice of in person or fully remote. There are countless options along that continuum. Those who are comfortable meeting in person, can, while others who prefer to stay socially distant are able to continue with that practice, using technology to facilitate the connection. Members of the public will be able to attend from their homes, and have the option to participate in the meeting and address the boards. Consultants similarly can save on travel time and participate by video or teleconference, if they prefer.
Legal compliance is critical, but there can be a blend of remote and in person, depending on the needs and preferences of each individual board. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. We are at an inflection point that allows for a reimagining of what public meetings should look like.