March 12, 2020
Ohio’s Open Meetings Act and COVID-19
With many questions circulating regarding the application of Ohio’s Open Meetings Act (OMA) in light of Governor Mike DeWine’s recent guidance on COVID-19 and mass gatherings, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost hosted a Facebook Live video this afternoon to help shed some light on the situation.
Yost referenced Ohio Revised Code (R.C.) 5502.24, which provides certain alternate arrangements for conducting public affairs when they are imprudent, inexpedient, or impossible due to an emergency. The provision also provides that “such powers and functions may be exercised in the light of the exigencies of the emergency without regard to or compliance with time-consuming procedures and formalities prescribed by law pertaining thereto, and all acts of that body and officers shall be as valid and binding as if performed within the territorial limits of their political subdivision.”
As a result of the Governor’s declaration of a state of emergency, Yost made it clear that while R.C. 5502.24 does not allow for suspension of OMA requirements, it does allow for public bodies to adjust practices with regard to items such as meeting notices. In regard to board meetings, Yost reinforced that board members of public bodies still must meet in person in order to deliberate, vote, and be counted for quorum. He did, however, note that there is no requirement that boards of education allow the public to be physically present at such meetings. Yost stated that electronic access to a board meeting, such as a live feed, would be sufficient to serve as appropriate access by the public to an open meeting of a board of education.
Each year, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office (AG) releases a revised version of its Ohio Sunshine Laws Manual (commonly referred to as the “Yellow Book”) prior to Sunshine Week. In light of the increase in questions surrounding OMA and COVID-19, the AG released the revised 2020 Yellow Book on Thursday, March 12, 2020. Pages 108-109 address OMA issues related to these questions. The Yellow Book is available for download on the AG’s website here.
In light of COVID-19 guidance, Governor DeWine announced during his afternoon press conference that schools will be closed for an extended spring break beginning at close of the school day on Monday, March 16, 2020 and extending for three (3) weeks until April 3, 2020. During this period, DeWine noted that local boards of education will have the ability to make local decisions with regard to both the extent to which building access may be allowed for certain individuals and the extent to which programming may be provided electronically/remotely to students.
In addition to these announcements, Governor DeWine also noted that his office and the Ohio Department of Education will be working together to ensure that any deadlines and requirements that may be missed as a result of the closure or other COVID-19-related precautions will be addressed and waived where possible. This includes any state testing requirements. Additional guidance with regard to precautions to slow the spread of COVID-19 are available on the Ohio Department of Health’s website.
We will keep clients informed as guidance is updated from the U.S. Department of Education, Ohio Governor’s Office, Ohio Attorney General’s Office, Ohio Department of Health, Ohio Department of Education, and other government entities. As always, feel free to contact any Walter | Haverfield attorney if we can be of assistance.