By Victor Skinner | The Center Square contributor
(The Center Square) — The Committee on Senate and Governmental Affairs has approved legislation sponsored by Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Republican candidate for governor, to establish rules for virtual public meetings.
Senate Bill 201 "basically provides a comprehensive framework that establishes the requirements for public entities to meet remotely via electronic means outside of a gubernatorial declared disaster or state of emergency," Hewitt told the committee, which she chairs.
The Slidell Republican explained video conferencing during the pandemic revealed many benefits of remote meetings, including increased government transparency, increased participation and reduced travel costs, and opportunities for disabled citizens to take part, either as a citizen or board member.
A legislative task force for remote operations held numerous public hearings over the last year to develop rules and regulations to leverage those advantages while ensuring in-person meetings for local boards and those making decisions involving significant spending or public impact, she said.
That work culminated with Senate Bill 201, which requires local public bodies to always meet in person, while allowing boards that are "beyond a regional scope" to hold a third of meetings remotely. The legislation would prohibit back-to-back remote meetings.
The bill includes some exceptions requiring in-person meetings for certain statewide boards with far-reaching spending and policy powers, including the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Board of Regents, Board of Ethics, the State Civil Service Commission, the board for Louisiana Citizens insurance, the Board of Commerce and Industry, and the Board of Supervisors for state universities.
SB201 also provides an exception for statewide bodies dealing with disability issues to always meet remotely, and stipulates disabled citizens "shall be given an opportunity to participate in a meeting via electronic means at both the local and statewide meetings," either as a board member or citizen, Hewitt said.
"It will be up to the public bodies to adopt rules around how they’re going to do that," she said.
Other provisions of the bill spell out rules boards must follow for remote meetings. They include offering an anchor location for the public to attend in person, rules for public participation, required recording and archiving of meetings, making meeting materials available online in real time, meeting notification requirements, and required roll call votes.
The bill also stipulates that remote meetings that experience technical difficulties must be halted and can be recessed for up to two hours to fix the issue, then adjured and rescheduled if the problem is not resolved.
SB201 further tasks the Louisiana Legislative Auditor with reviewing implementation of the legislation to recommend improvements.
Numerous disability rights advocates testified or submitted cards in support of the bill, which was also backed by the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana.
"This is a sea change or at least the start of a sea change in how we do public meetings," PAR President Steven Procopio said.
Procopio noted that the intent behind the bill is to avoid a patchwork of different virtual meeting rules for hundreds of different commissions and boards.
"I really appreciate trying to get everything under one roof," he said.
Procopio explained that citizens became more engaged through virtual meetings during the pandemic, and SB201 will ensure that continues.
"Under COVID, citizens got used to a lot more access to their public meetings, they were able to see things online and participate," he said. "I think once they got involved, they don’t want to lose that."
There was no opposition to the bill, which now moves to the Senate floor.