What the Gov: How Are Governments Navigating Open Meetings in the Coronavirus Era?

To keep social distancing rules in place, Pritzker waived requirements that public bodies meet in person. What are they still required to do to make sure the public has access and can have their voices heard?

(Justin German/BGA)

This article is part of a series called What the Gov?, where the BGA takes reader questions and tracks down the answers. We are devoting resources to covering how local and state governments are responding to the coronavirus outbreak. We are committed to reporting on what you want to know. Ask your questions here.

In one of his first acts to limit the spread of COVID-19, Gov. J.B. Pritzker waived state requirements that members of government bodies must be physically present to hold meetings.

The directive made sense in a world quickly becoming accustomed to social distancing. And government meetings across Illinois are now going virtual, including Chicago’s next City Council meeting.

But even in virtual settings, citizens still have rights to have their voices heard and make sure governments are making decisions transparently.

The Better Government Association decided to tackle how public officials are navigating this complicated new world order after a reader reached out inquiring about government meetings being held online. What steps are local and county governments still required to take under the new rules and what guidance or support are they receiving to ensure they don’t run afoul of open meetings laws?

To start, the governor’s order suspends provisions of the Illinois Open Meetings Act mandating in-person attendance and limiting remote attendance by elected officials. And while the order does not mandate any specific behavior, it encourages public bodies to postpone meetings or provide the public with video, audio or telephone access for those meetings that can’t be delayed.

But that doesn’t mean public officials are off the hook when it comes to other requirements under the act, experts said.

“The Open Meetings Act is still in effect and all of the provisions that don’t conflict with those orders, they need to follow those,” said Ben Silver, a lawyer with the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center.

That includes the requirement government bodies allow for public comment and post meeting notices and agendas at least 48 hours before members convene, according to a spokeswoman for the Illinois attorney general’s office.

“They need to find ways to make sure their meetings are open and accessible,” spokeswoman Tori Joseph said.

Guidance posted online by the attorney general’s public access counselor says “public bodies should consider taking public comment by email or written submission and reading those public comments at the public meeting.”

“If public bodies are convening via electronic means … the public body should ensure that the public has a means to both observe and comment during these meetings,” the document continues.

Pritzker’s open meetings directive came in the same March 16 order that prohibited restaurants and bars from serving dine-in customers, which preceded the governor’s “stay at home” order that prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people.

The public access counselor’s guidelines were issued after the first order but before the stay-at-home order that made virtual meetings more necessary.

Joseph told us the public access counselor is working to update guidance to address questions the office has received from public bodies since the stay-at-home order took effect.

The public access counselor also has received four requests for review over potential violations of the Open Meetings Act related to the outbreak since the governor’s March 16 order took effect, Joseph said.

A spokesperson for Gov. Pritzker’s office did not respond to questions about whether the state is providing any assistance to local governments as they move their meetings online or over the phone. But Joseph said she was not aware of any state office or agency providing financial or technical support to public bodies at this time.

A recent City Bureau report found that since March 9, at least 85 of 143 public meetings in Chicago were canceled, while at least 16 were held or scheduled to be held electronically.

A spokesperson for Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office told us the City Council meeting scheduled for April 15 will also be held virtually, with a period included for public comment. Members of the public interested in speaking at the meeting can sign up 48 hours beforehand, 10 of whom will be randomly selected the day before to call in and speak for their allotted three minutes.