Municipal Law: Navigating the West Virginia Open Governmental Meetings Act in Response to COVID-19
On March 23, 2020, Governor Jim Justice issued an executive “Stay-at-Home” home order, officially known as Executive Order 9-20, in an attempt to further combat the spread of COVID-19 within West Virginia. However, municipal governments may be left asking themselves what impact this will have on their ability to hold meetings and make decisions to best benefit their citizens. Below is a quick guide to the requirements for a meeting under the West Virginia Open Governmental Meetings Act (“the Act”) and how these requirements can be met in consideration of COVID-19.
First and foremost, municipal government is included as “essential business” under Section 3, Subsection (d) of Governor Justice’s executive order. Therefore, municipal decision-making bodies are still permitted to meet in light of West Virginia’s attempts to combat COVID-19. However, many municipalities may feel the need to hold their meetings in a way that limits in-person contact between citizens while still allowing citizens to take part in and observe municipal government functions.
A “meeting” covered by the Act is a convening of a quorum of a governing body or subcommittee to make a decision or deliberation towards a decision. If this discussion takes place outside the confines of a public meeting—whether in person, by telephone, email or other telecommunication means — it is an illegal meeting. Therefore, a municipal decision-making body cannot make decisions unless it is in the public eye. This can obviously cause some public safety issues when considering meeting in spite of COVID-19.
However, the Act simply requires municipal governing bodies to meet in open session where citizens may observe the proceedings in a reasonably accessible setting. Meetings by telephone, video, or webcast are still allowed if the public is reasonably able to participate. Any effort to hold a public meeting by remote means should be communicated clearly in the meeting agenda, with the procedure to access the meeting laid out.