Open Meetings Act: To be or not to be virtual?

Open Meetings Act: To be or not to be virtual?

On June 30, 2021, Governor Abbott’s office approved lifting the suspensions of certain provisions of the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA) at 12:01 a.m. on September 1, 2021.

But what does this mean for the future landscape of public meetings? Since the initial suspension was enacted, many of our public sector meeting participants (including elected officials, the public taxpayers, and the various consultants) have attended these public meetings virtually via video and/or telephone.

While this option had historically been limited by the language written in the Texas Open Meetings act dating back as far as 15 years ago, the average technological capabilities of all participants has vastly matured since then—and even more so during this 2020-current COVID-19 period.

While the spirit of the pre-existing TOMA requirements was meant to preserve and reinforce both transparency and ease-of-access for the public taxpayers, it has become (ironically) prohibitive to the public’s expectations of transparency and ease-of-access, alike.

The prior suspension had allowed all citizens and officials to interact virtually via video and telephone and saved attendees hundreds of thousands of hours in travel time and reduced taxpayer costs by millions of dollars from costs inherent with hosting in-person meetings.

As of September 1st, some this goes away—But, not all of it.

Even with the reversion to the original requirements for hosting TOMA complaint meetings, there are still some benefits to be had. As it stands, public meetings may still be hosted virtually/via videoconference with a “hybrid” model.

The primary features being:

  1. The quorum of the board of directors/governing board must be physically present at the published meeting location.
    (i.e. – If the board has 5 members, 3 must be physically present)

  2. Remaining board members except for the quorum may attend remotely.
    (i.e. – If the board has 5 members, 2 may participate remotely)

  3. All board consultants may attend remotely.

  4. All members of the public may attend remotely.

While this may not be the ideal scene of being fully virtual (and still bears some the burdens of an in person location, costs of maintaining such meeting location facilities, and travel costs for those attending in person), it continues to reflect the need for legislative changes to meet our evolving public demands and highly valued tax savings. As always, if you have additional questions concerning legal implementation or restrictions please consult your legal counsel.

If you want to see fresh legislation that increases transparency and accessibility, write your legislator.

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