As the COVID-19 pandemic hit Oklahoma last spring, state lawmakers responded by authorizing temporary changes to state open-meetings laws and allowed government bodies to meet entirely by video or teleconference.
Those provisions are scheduled to expire on Nov. 15. But before they do, members of the Senate want to know if those changes should be made permanent, revised, or repealed entirely.
“It’s not an issue that when you go knock on someone’s door that they bring up to you, but it’s something that’s extremely important,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City. “And as elected officials and as people who are charged with guarding open meetings and making sure that there’s transparency in the process—both from our side and the journalists’ side—I think this is an important conversation for us to have.”
In a legislative study requested by Treat, a city mayor and members of the press discussed their views of recent changes to open-meetings law, saying teleconferencing has increased public access to government but also posed challenges.
Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association, said one problem is that teleconferencing allows public officials to avoid public reaction.
“I think it has provided some convenience for the public to attend more meetings—Deer Creek school board meetings and other meetings,” Thomas said. “And it’s provided convenience for members of the public body. They never have to leave the house to serve on a board. That’s ultimate convenience. You do not have to ever go to a meeting or face the electorate when there’s a hot vote that needs to be taken. You can call it in from your living room and hang up. That’s an issue that I think we’re going to have to address, a major issue that we’re going to have to address.”
Thomas said conducting meetings by teleconference has been problematic because citizens often cannot determine who is speaking or who is in a room with public officials. Prior law did not allow teleconferences, only videoconferencing.
Although the law requires that all meetings be recorded, Thomas said some boards or commissions have almost immediately erased those recordings.
“Some public bodies have been recording the public meeting, but then they delete it immediately,” Thomas said. “They do minutes and delete the recording quickly.”
Tres Savage, editor in chief of NonDoc.com, an online news site, raised the same issue.
“There are some concerns about, as Mark pointed out, public bodies that are now conducting these meetings and maybe they’re streaming it on YouTube somehow, but then five minutes after the meeting’s over the stream’s gone,” Savage said. “So there’s a little more access in the moment, but what are we trading for the ability not to interact with people? Now we can’t even go back and watch it 10 minutes later. So I think that’s a concern I’ve heard from some certain school districts.”
Thomas said some public bodies have also exploited loopholes to avoid distributing materials to the public that are provided to members of governing boards during open meetings.
Paul Monies, a reporter with Oklahoma Watch, noted the same problem. He also said virtual meetings often provide little opportunity for public comment from citizens.
“There’s been some complacency that’s kind of set in,” Monies said.
Savage said the reforms passed in the spring have allowed more people to watch public meetings, but not to interact with elected officials in those meetings.
“With videoconferencing and teleconferencing, unless the body goes out of its way to make that possible, it is impossible,” Savage said.
Thomas also said some government bodies have used video services that citizens can access only through subscription services, which effectively restricts public access.
Bethany Mayor K. P. Westmoreland, said videoconferencing reforms have generally been positive, although he noted technical challenges have caused some of his city council meetings to drag on for hours.
“Though there were frustrations, I believe the positives far outweigh the negatives,” Westmoreland said. “I believe this is something that should become a common tool that cities can use to make sure elected officials are able to participate and citizens are able to have the representation they deserve.”
However, he said it is better for members to meet in person so citizens can interact with them, although Westmoreland noted his support for live video streaming of public meetings preceded COVID-19.
“I don’t think somebody that’s elected by the people should have the option to just do virtual just because they don’t want to show up,” Westmoreland said.
Savage said the pandemic forced many government bodies to stream meetings that should have employed that practice years ago.
“It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to get the University of Oklahoma to broadcast its Board of Regents meeting on YouTube,” Savage said. “It shouldn’t have taken a global crisis to have them allow the public to see what the governing board is doing.”
When considering revisions to Oklahoma’s open-meeting laws, Savage said officials need to keep in mind what “bad actors or people who are trying to avoid the public or media” may do to evade transparency even when meetings are streaming online.
“You can actually access more public meetings from your office or living room than you could before, in some ways,” Savage said. “But at the same time, laws are written because not everybody acts within accordance with the best practices and interests of the public.”