City council must do more to hear public
Warren City Council might be following the letter of the law — according to new COVID-era legislation that allows public bodies to meet and conduct public business remotely — so long as council members make their actions available to their constituents and the greater public.
But we believe council should be doing more to follow the spirit of the law.
Gov. Mike DeWine signed into law House Bill 197 on March 27, allowing members of public bodies to hold and attend meetings by teleconference, video conference or any similar electronic technology. Those meetings will be legal under Ohio’s open meetings laws likely until at least Dec. 20.
Under the law, just like in-person meetings, the public body is required to give notice of the meeting to the media and other parties that requested notification at least 24 hours before it takes place. In an emergency situation, the public body must give notice as soon as practical.
And, of course, the public must have access to the elected body’s discussions and deliberations conducted via the electronic method to the same extent people would get from attending in person. That includes the ability for the viewer / listener to hear every member participating in person or electronically.
Examples of electronic methods that afford public access (and that are cited in the law) include livestreaming via the internet; broadcasting on local radio, television, cable or public access channels; and calling in to a teleconference.
Public bodies such as Warren City Council not only should provide access to the public discussions and deliberations, but also should be creating means in which the public can contribute to the meeting.
Warren council is among those entities that have decided to conduct business via an online platform that creates an opportunity for the public to view the meeting remotely, but does not offer any forum for two-way communication from the public.
To be clear, there is no stipulation in Ohio law that says elected government bodies must allow public comment — even though they are doing public work. (We believe that’s wrong, but that’s another argument for another day.)
However, in a non-COVID time, Warren City Council established a public meeting routine that, in most cases, allowed a public comment period.
The Ohio law governing public meetings during this pandemic notes that the public body “shall provide the public access to a meeting held under this section … that the public would otherwise be entitled to attend, commensurate with the method in which the meeting or hearing is being conducted …”
We would argue that the spirit of this law was to regulate public meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that while these meetings might be occurring remotely, elected officials still should be following the same format and guidelines that normally would have been followed during in-person meetings.
Now, rather than do some research of online or teleconference forums that might allow two-way communication for public comment periods (such as Zoom video conferencing or FreeConferenceCall.com, for example), Warren council opted, instead, to conduct business with one-way communication and no public comment.
In the past week, Warren council opted to give a controversial topic of instituting a city-run impound yard a standard three readings. We were pleased to see that, as we have often argued in this space about the importance of multiple readings before passage of legislation. Still, council seems to have missed the point of hosting three readings before a final vote, which is to guarantee opportunities for constituents to offer feedback on proposed legislation.
By holding three readings without any opportunity for public comment, council has fallen well short of its obligation to hear its constituents voice opinions and ask questions.
Sure, conducting the business of Warren’s residents via web video might be walking the line in adhering to the letter of the law these days. But undoubtedly, city council members should be doing so much more to guarantee the voice of the people who elected them and who pay their salary is being heard at council’s public meetings.