D.C. Council Extends Virtual Meetings
Fritz Mulhauser | October 12, 2021
The D.C. Council passed legislation October 5 extending authority for public bodies to meet virtually.
The Open Meetings Act requires meetings of covered bodies (executive branch boards and commissions, D.C. Council, charter schools’ trustees, etc.) to be held in public. That’s defined as meetings the public can attend, where the press can attend, or televised.
Beginning in March 2020 legislation added authorization of meetings not in person but with reasonable steps to let the public “view or hear” a meeting as it happened. (D.C. law does not require opportunities for the public to participate.)
The Office of Open Government spent many hours last year helping public bodies adopt new technologies for connecting remote participants and streaming the resulting interchange on the now familiar Zoom, WebEx and other platforms.
The D.C. Council, too, moved its hearings and legislative sessions to virtual platforms. In 2020 that cut many hours of public interaction in hearings while also opening convenient participation from home to many who hadn’t been able to attend in person. Tech improvements restored some of the lost hours in 2021.
The suspension of any requirement for in-person meetings was due to expire but, like extensions in many other places as the COVID virus continues, vaccination lags and the public appreciates online access, the D.C. practice now will continue in effect. The bill’s author Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) said only that “some are not ready to resume in person.”
The change in the law to continue virtual meeting authority is in emergency and temporary bills, good for 90 and 225 days. The bill text extends the changes through 2022. The Coalition will monitor any hearing on proposals to make the change permanent, to advocate for maximum openness as health conditions permit, perhaps through hybrid meetings that combine in-person and remote access and participation.