Capitol

OKLAHOMA CITY — As a law allowing for fully virtual public meetings expires, a top Senate Republican continues to press for modernization of the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act.

Effective immediately, public bodies and nonprofits subject to the state’s Open Meeting Act can no longer hold fully virtual meetings. The bodies had been allowed to temporarily meet remotely since February under Senate Bill 1031. That exemption ended last week following Gov. Kevin Stitt’s decision to end Oklahoma’s COVID-19 state of emergency.

“With the governor’s executive order expiring, public meetings should resume in person as they did pre-pandemic,” said Alex Gerszewski, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office.

State lawmakers had granted the permission to meet virtually in a bid to protect participants from COVID-19. The modifications to the state’s Open Meeting Act were greeted with considerable enthusiasm by many appointees, elected officials and members of the public who welcomed the chance to participate and monitor the creation of public policy remotely.

Under the law, some members of public bodies can still meet remotely as long as a quorum is there in person. Those who choose to meet remotely, though, must list an address on the meeting agenda where they will be attending. They must ensure that the remote location is within the district that they’re assigned to represent and open and accessible to any member of the public who wishes to attend.

State Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said recently that the Legislature left long-term reform to the state’s Open Meeting Act unfinished this session.

“I deeply believe that we need to modernize the Open Meetings Act,” said Treat, who is president pro tem of the Senate.

Treat said with the advent of virtual meetings, he witnessed increasing numbers of Oklahomans participate remotely in school board, city council and state government meetings.

“We must get more public transparency,” he said. “We must get more involvement. We need to modernize.”

Treat said he doesn’t want to take away from personal face-to-face interactions, but there are ways Oklahoma can do things better.

“When I’ve talked to various people across the state, one of the things that excites them is the ability to get people from all across Oklahoma to participate in some of these state boards and commissions that are non-compensated,” Treat said. “They don’t feel like they have the time to drive up to (Oklahoma City) for a couple of hours, participate, and then go back home and leave their business, but they would love to participate if they could get on a Zoom link and share the perspective from all corners of the state.”

Treat said getting more Oklahomans engaged in the process remains an overarching goal.

He said a measure modernizing the Open Meeting Act had cleared the Senate, but had not yet been heard in the state House. House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, is the other author of Senate Bill 1032.

John Estus, a spokesman for McCall, said the measure is “a positive, important bill” that is positioned to be acted on quickly by the state House next year.

“The speaker is happy to be carrying it, and expects member questions and discussions of potential amendments to strengthen it to continue in the interim to help move it forward next session,” Estus said. “Plenty of bills start the process one session and finish it the next, and this may well be one of those.”

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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