Arizona Open Meeting Laws And Practicing Social-Distancing Amid COVID-19 Concerns
March 26, 2020
By Jill Casson Owen and Gabrielle M. Morlock
In light of COVID-19 concerns and the practice of social distancing, some public bodies may be considering for the first time how public open meetings can be conducted telephonically or by other remote means. While conducting open meetings by telephone or other electronic means is already acceptable under the Arizona statutes, there are certain considerations to follow to ensure compliance with the Arizona open meeting statutes.
Open Meetings Per Arizona Statutes
While many public bodies routinely hold in-person meetings, open meetings can also be accomplished remotely by a one-way electronic communication or an exchange of electronic communications. The meeting can take place through media outlets or other public broadcast communications or technological means. Members of the public may also participate in a meeting by telephone, video or internet conference.
The Arizona statutes allow an open meeting by telephonic or other electronic means, however there are additional requirements associated with remote meetings in order to remain compliant with the open meeting law. When conducting the open meeting by telephone or electronic device, the members and the public must be able to hear each member clearly, and there must be procedures in place that clearly identify the members that are participating by telephone/video/etc. This can be done by each member stating their name before speaking (when conducted telephonically) or by having name placards in front of each member (when conducted by video). If a member of the public requests ADA accommodations, those must be met accordingly (i.e., providing subtitles or a sign language interpreter for video conferences or an online transcript of the telephone conversation accessible online). To facilitate access, a public body should consider technical support issues, and advise the public what to do if they have difficulty accessing the meeting.
A “call to the public” is optional at the discretion of the public body under the Arizona open meeting statutes. If the public body elects to conduct a “call to the public” it can do so by telephonic and/or electronic means. However, because there can be technological and noise issues when doing so, the public body should have measures in place to control the technology being used to limit noise or any sounds that may disrupt the open meeting or cause the communications to not be heard clearly. The public body should consider providing telephonic meeting etiquette guidelines with the agenda and/or provide guidelines at the onset of a telephonic meeting at which members of the public will have the ability to speak. The key is that all information must be communicated clearly, and the public body will need to have proper procedures in place to ensure that it is.
While the same advance notice requirements apply to in-person and remote open meetings, the Attorney General recommends providing a longer period of prior notice to the extent possible when conducting a meeting by technological or remote means. The notice should advise that members of the public body may be attending by telephone, video or internet conferencing, as applicable. The notice must identify the physical location (if any) and the electronic locations where the public can attend the meeting (where the video may be aired) or where the public may participate (by dialing in or through online access). If materials or presentations will be presented and discussed, these should be accessible online to the public and posted with the agenda.
If any technological problem occurs that affects the meeting (or the notice of the meeting), the error must be documented to include the nature and duration of the error and an explanation of how it affected the meeting itself. Further, the meeting minutes must identify the members of the public body who participated by telephonic or video communications, as well as all members of the public who spoke at the meeting.
While the statutes permit the use of technology for open meetings, an organization’s governing documents and procedures may impose additional restrictions or requirements. Therefore, it is important for a public body to consult its governing documents when planning a remote open meeting.
The Arizona Revised Statutes already allow for open meetings to take place telephonically or by some other electronic means. However, to be compliant, the members holding the meetings must adapt the usual administrative requirements to the new format and provide ample time for the public to access the open meeting online.
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