Public Meetings Move Online Amid COVID-19 Restrictions

Apr 21, 2020

The novel coronavirus has canceled many aspects of regular order, but city and state governments are still making decisions that might outlast the current pandemic.

YPR News’ Kayla Desroches has been reporting on how elected officials are balancing social distancing guidelines with the public’s right to open government. She shared her reporting with Nicky Ouellet.

NO: Kayla, part of the democratic process is that people can participate in choices their government makes. Usually that happens at city council meetings, etc. How are city and state governments navigating meetings right now, when they’re restricted from meeting in person?

KD: The right to know and the right to participation are outlined in the Montana Constitution. So that means members of the public must be given the opportunities to watch meetings and also to participate and provide input. So elected officials are required to navigate that right now and how they do that depends on what method they choose, what fits for them. In Sidney Montana, city council is using Microsoft Teams, in Hardin Montana, according to the Big Horn County News, city council is using Facebook Live so people can ask a question online. In Glendive, meetings are actually cancelled in April.

NO: Have any groups faced issues trying to move their meetings online?

KD: It appears that mostly the smaller communities are managing the remote meetings pretty well. On the other hand, larger bodies voting on issues of statewide significance are bumping into trouble. For example, the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities in Montana, had a meeting where they talked about Northwestern Energy’s proposed acquisition of a share in Colstrip Unit four and someone called in and "Zoombombed" them which is basically when someone interrupts a conversations with cursing or racism or something that’s not related at all. So they had to put a pause on that agenda item and postpone it because they didn’t feel like they had given an opportunity for public comment thoroughly.

There are some other issues just with technology and people not being familiar with what to do.

“These types of collaborative efforts are only as effective as the weakest technological links of the people participating,” says University of Montana Media Law Professor Lee Banville.

If you have your speaker phone not on mute, then that can reverberate throughout the entire meeting.

NO: How can government bodies improve their meetings?

KD: Training is one thing that Banville pointed out that people might need to make sure things are streamlined. He’s also going back to the subject of technology and choosing software that best suits the needs of the people involved. He said that maybe Zoom might not be the best choice for some certain groups.

Banville gave one example of a council that’s doing meetings well.

“They’re not trying to run a normal meeting but do it online. They’re really trying to say, ‘What are the specific things that need to be addressed? How do we address them and how do we make sure that people know what we’re talking about?’” he says of Missoula’s city council.

NO: What’s at stake if governmental groups can’t figure out how to balance public meetings and open meeting laws with these social distancing guidelines?

KD: If there’s no one keeping elected officials accountable, that could put voters’ interests at risk. If elected officials do hold a meeting behind closed doors, they’re leaving themselves up to a potential lengthy and expensive lawsuit, the public could demand a revote. So theoretically, elected officials could make changes without due process but if they’re caught, then there are consequences.