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Changes to Open Meetings Law Allow for Virtual Meetings 

By Luke F. McConville, Member

Changes to the open meetings law, as codified in Ohio Revised Code §121.22, were necessitated by the public health concerns raised by COVID-19 combined with Governor DeWine’s orders limiting the number of people (to ten) who can congregate indoors.

Earlier this year, in response to public health concerns raised by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ohio General Assembly passed Amended Substitute House Bill 197, which included modifications to Ohio’s open meetings law.  The changes modify the in-person attendance mandate for public officials and instead allow public bodies to conduct virtual meetings for the duration of a public health state of emergency.  The General Assembly has recently extended the virtual meeting format through July 2021.

During the state of emergency, a public body such as city council can meet via teleconference, video conference, or any similar electronic technology.  Access to any such virtual meeting must be afforded through some mechanism that makes it generally available, such as teleconferencing, live streaming via the internet, or broadcasting on local public access television stations.  Many municipalities have utilized video conferencing applications such as Zoom or WebEx, where public officials and citizens alike can gather virtually and conduct business remotely, including live votes on motions and legislation, and comments from the audience on the issues of the day.

It is important to note that, except where House Bill 197 made specific changes to the requirements of the law, the provisions of Ohio Revised Code §121.22 related to open meetings – including those regarding notice requirements, the taking and maintenance of minutes, and limitations on executive sessions – continue to apply.

The virtual meeting platform has proven to be popular.  The convenience of simply logging on by computer has led to increased attendance and participation in local governments throughout the state.  While there is nothing in the open meetings law that precludes a public body from meeting in-person, given the success of video conferencing applications and the increased participation in public discourse that has resulted, it is highly likely that most public meetings will continue to be held virtually while the state of emergency persists. The potential impact on the form of public meetings after the pandemic ends will remain a topic of interest to see if technology adopted during the health crisis is used in a more permanent basis moving forward, given the rise in public participation.

Luke McConville is a Member with NGC with extensive experience in public sector law. He has served as solicitor and law director in several communities, and currently serves as law director for the City of University Heights and solicitor for the Village of Newburgh Heights. For more information about NGC’s public sector law practice, please contact Luke at: [email protected].