By Kyle Hartnett
Although the governor’s state of emergency for COVID-19 has ended, some city councils — and their residents — have become so comfortable with the convenience of online meetings that they want to continue them.
Continuing remote meetings, however, requires cities to follow specific statutory procedures, depending on how technology is being used.
Typically, under the Minnesota Open Meeting Law, city officials can only vote at a city meeting if they are physically present. If a city official wants to take part in a meeting through interactive technology, the Open Meeting Law requires them to take specific steps. The Open Meeting Law requirements for remote participation are different from those many cities used while the governor’s COVID-19 emergency orders were in effect.
Minnesota Statutes, section 13D.02 defines the requirements for a city to meet using “interactive technology” (formerly called “interactive television”). The law defines interactive technology as a device, software program, or other application that allows individuals in different physical locations to see and hear one another. The law will apply anytime a city council or board uses programs such as Zoom, WebEx, Microsoft Teams, etc.
The following requirements must be met for a city to meet via interactive technology:
- Members at all locations can hear and see one another and all discussion and testimony presented.
- The public at the regular meeting location can hear and see all discussion and testimony.
- At least one member of the council is present at the regular meeting location.
- All votes are conducted by roll call.
- Each location at which a member of the body is present is open and accessible to the public.
- The city provides notice of the regular meeting location and remote locations.
- To the extent practical, the public can monitor the meeting electronically from a remote location.
Notice of location does not need to be provided if a member is serving in the military and is at a required drill, deployed, or on active duty.
One of the biggest concerns with using interactive technology is that members participating remotely must do so from a location that is open to the public. This means that if a member is taking part in a meeting from their home, the member must provide their address in the public notice and allow the public to attend the meeting from the home.
While it is unlikely that a member of the public would want to watch a meeting from a council member’s home or hotel room, council members must be prepared for such a possibility.
Another concern with relying on interactive technology is the possibility that technology will not work as planned. If, for example, a city has connectivity issues during an interactive meeting, it may not be able to allow remote participants to attend.
Likewise, a city needs to have the necessary technology that allows everyone to see and hear all participants regardless of location. This can be difficult to accomplish for meetings with large attendance or lots of public testimony.
If a city is going to rely on interactive technology, it must ensure that it has the equipment necessary to meet the statutory requirements.
Through the COVID-19 pandemic, many cities found that residents appreciate online city meetings. They allow residents a convenient way to watch and participate in city meetings without having to travel to city hall.
Some cities have continued to broadcast their meetings through interactive technology and allow the public to provide testimony online. Using interactive technology for public input does not have the same notice and technological requirements as noted previously.
Cities are free to take public comment through online platforms without providing additional notices. If a city uses interactive technology to encourage public participation, it should make clear how the technology will be used.
The public should be made aware that, due to possible technology problems, attendance at the meeting location provides the best chance to ensure that their comments will be heard.
A city may want to simply broadcast meetings without taking online public comment. This allows the public to remain informed but places less stress on city staff to monitor online participants.
Ultimately, the use of technology for city meetings may provide increased participation in local government. It’s up to each city’s leaders to decide what is best for their community when it comes to using interactive technology for city meetings.
Kyle Hartnett is assistant research manager with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: email@example.com or (651) 215-4084.