An interim study held Wednesday in the Oklahoma Senate examined the potential to make permanent changes that the Oklahoma Legislature made earlier this year to the state’s open meeting law that allowed agencies, boards and commissions at the state and local level to meet and hold public meetings virtually, in accordance with health and safety guidelines due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, requested the study saying he thinks the temporary changes have been mostly successful and that making them permanent may be worthwhile to ensure state laws accommodate the use of new technology. The changes to the Open Meeting Act expire Nov. 15.
“I think the changes the Legislature made to the Open Meeting Act were successful on two fronts,” Treat said. “The changes allowed government at state and local levels to continue to meet publicly and do their jobs while still following coronavirus-related health and safety protocols. The changes also brought public meetings online increasing transparency of government at the state and local level by giving the public even more access to observe the actions of public bodies.”
Treat said he personally took advantage of public meetings moving online and watched the online meetings of the school board of the district where his children attend school. He said work and his children’s extracurricular activities often kept his family from attending such meetings in person.
“Working families have a lot going on and don’t always have time to attend a meeting in person of the city council, the school board, or the county commission. But those local entities make decisions routinely that have a huge impact on the daily lives of those same families. I think by modernizing the Open Meeting Act and preserving the ability of public bodies to give the public access to meetings online is a positive and the Legislature should consider making these changes permanent,” Treat said.
The hearing featured testimony from the mayor of Bethany about his city’s experience with holding meetings online. A representative from the Oklahoma Press Association, shared experiences of its members with the changes and offered examples of entities that fell short of the tenants of the Open Meeting Act. Members of the Capitol press corps overall characterized the updates to the Open Meeting Act as positive but gave input on areas that lawmakers should pay attention to ensure public access isn’t diminished.
“Any changes we make to the Open Meeting Act will be to increase transparency and access by the public. We must make sure that changes aren’t made that allow public bodies to avoid scrutiny. I appreciate the input of members of the media for their input on how the Legislature can prevent abuses of the Open Meeting Act as we work to modernize the law,” Treat said.