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NEWTON — As courthouses and city halls close, there is a logistical problem that arises for governmental boards — just how does the county commission or city council meet?
And, just as important, how do its members host a public meeting and comply with the Kansas Open Meetings Act?
Guidance from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and an executive order from Gov. Laura Kelly, limits the number of people in one place at one time to 10. Social distancing guidelines ask those people to stay at least 6 feet apart.
According to Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, the Kansas Open Meetings Act requires public bodies to be “open to the public.” Ordinarily, that requirement is met by allowing members of the public to enter the room where the meeting is taking place so they can listen and observe.
The answer to the problem of public governmental guidelines is popping up in meeting notices and agendas. Now appearing are internet links for video conferencing and phone numbers for voice conferences.
For some area government bodies, this is nothing really new. The McPherson City Commission has posted video of its meetings to YouTube, while the Newton USD 373 board of education started streaming live to Facebook on its own earlier this year.
The Harvey County Commission hosted its first online stream this week, making use of the service Zoom to provide video and telephone access. The commission met in the basement of the courthouse as the meeting was streamed.
Under new guidelines issued by the state, each entity will notify the public of the internet location of the meeting during the meeting notification process.
The attorney general’s office has proposed formal rules for state and local governments to ensure their meetings remain open to the public during “social distancing” emergency restrictions on gathering in person. Basically, those new rules require for broadcast of the meeting, preferably with video, on either television of the internet or by audio by telephone conferencing.
“During a time of declared emergency when lives are disrupted, many people are apprehensive, and rumors can run rampant, the importance of ensuring openness and transparency in the government decision-making process is even greater than usual,” Schmidt said. “An important way for public bodies to provide reassurance is to go the extra mile to ensure their actions are transparent during the time of emergency.
“This new guidance will help state and local government bodies throughout Kansas operate transparently even when the public cannot gather in person for meetings.”