With a keen eye towards the new rules for state and local governments to comply with the Kansas Open Meetings Act during COVID-19 social distancing emergency restrictions, the City of Great Bend and Barton County have announced they will conduct their meetings via live streaming.
The requirements were put forth by Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt to maintain governmental transparency. They were approved by the State Rules and Regulations Board and made legally binding when it met Wednesday.
Schmidt proposed the new regulations last week amid the proliferation of COVID-19 public health restrictions that may prevent people from gathering in person for public meetings. Under an executive order issued by Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly Tuesday limiting public gatherings to 10 or fewer.
“We will be moving to electronic platform,” said Great Bend City Administrator Kendal Francis. The council will utilize Zoom meeting and it will be made available to the public, and the city will still be broadcasting via Facebook live as well.
The City Council and staff will all be participating remotely, he said. “There will not be a centralized location to view the meeting.”
Francis noted that Zoom allows for telephone conferencing as well. “You can call in and listen to the meeting,” he said.
The city will prepare all the necessary public contact and access information, and will make it well known prior to the council’s next meeting Monday, April 6.
The same is the case for the Barton County Commission, said County Administrator Phil Hathcock.
Commissioners plan to meet at their regular time of 9 a.m. Monday at the Barton County Courthouse, but the chamber will be closed to the public except the media. It will be live-streamed through Microsoft Teams. Citizens may view the meeting through their own sign-in or by signing in anonymously.
To participate, follow the link https://bit.ly/2WFYOa6. This can also be downloaded as a free app on a phone or mobile device.
Those who wish to take part in the discussion of any item can call 620-793-1800 for instructions.
What do the new state KOMA rules entail?
Overall, the new regulation advises public bodies to keep the need for transparency prominently in mind if stay-home orders or other pandemic-response requirements prevent the public from attending meetings or cause members of public bodies to meet without physically gathering in person. Public bodies subject to the KOMA should “take any actions as may be necessary and reasonable under the circumstances of the emergency declaration to advance the state policy that ‘meetings for the conduct of governmental affairs and the transaction of governmental business be open to the public.’”
Schmidt said he will propose the regulation be permanently adopted, which will start a process allowing more public input and comment on the regulation.
KOMA requires public bodies to be “open to the public.” Ordinarily, that requirement is met by allowing members of the public to enter the room where the meeting is taking place so they can listen and observe. But public-health requirements to slow the spread of COVID-19, including the Centers for Disease Control recommendation not to gather in groups of more than 10 people, makes many in-person gatherings impossible or inadvisable.
The new regulation for complying with the KOMA during an emergency provides as follows:
• The KOMA remains in full force and effect unless explicitly suspended by emergency order of the governor. The governor has not currently suspended any requirement of the KOMA.
If the members of the public body themselves are not physically gathered in one place – for example, if the meeting itself is conducted by telephone or videoconferencing – then members of the public must be able to join in the electronic conferencing in order to listen to or observe the meeting.
• If the members of the public body are physically gathered for a meeting but cannot allow members of the public to be present because of emergency limitations, then the public body must take steps to allow members of the public to listen to or observe the meeting by telephone, videoconferencing, television broadcast or similar method.
• When the public is participating in a public meeting by telephone or other medium of interactive communication, members of the body must take steps to help the public understand the proceedings despite not being physically present. For example, each speaker in the meeting should identify herself by name before speaking or voting so remote listeners or observers can more readily know who is speaking; likewise, each motion should be clearly stated and each vote tally clearly announced.
• The procedure for any executive session must be clearly explained at the outset of a meeting.
• There must be no cost for the public to participate.
• There must be a method for distributing any agenda or other written materials that ordinarily could be picked up in person by members of the public attending the meeting. Those procedures must be explained to the public before the meeting begins.
• In addition to the regulation itself, which will be legally binding, the attorney general also has issued a Best Practices document with additional actions that are strongly recommended. These recommendations include:
• Before shifting to new meeting procedures that do not allow in-person public attendance, produce and widely disseminate to the general public through news media, social media, email and other means a notice explaining why and how the ordinary meeting procedures will change, how the public may receive notice of meetings, and how the public may continue to participate in meetings.
• Audio or video record the meeting and post to the public body’s website so members of the public who could not participate later can review what occurred.
Post to a public website any materials that will be distributed during the meeting, such as any agenda, agenda packet, or presentation.
Overall, the new guidance advises public bodies to keep the need for transparency prominently in mind when adapting to social-distancing requirements during the COVID-19 response. Public bodies subject to the KOMA should “take any actions as may be necessary and reasonable under the circumstances of the emergency declaration to advance the state policy that ‘meetings for the conduct of governmental affairs and the transaction of governmental business be open to the public.’”
A copy of the regulation, K.A.R. 16-20-1, and an accompanying Best Practices document are available on the attorney general’s website at www.ag.ks.gov/open-government.