Virtual Public Hearings: Cities Strive to Protect their Constituents

February 15, 2021

By Emily Hirst, GMA Assistant General Counsel

On March 14, 2020, Gov. Kemp signed a public health state of emergency to address COVID-19 in Georgia. Since then, the virus has killed more than 10,000 Georgians, and millions have had to make abrupt changes to their lives.

As the virus spread, more and more organizations, including governmental entities, took action to protect their employees by asking them to work from home.

Like everyone else, cities have been doing their best to keep operations uninterrupted. However, municipalities have unique legal duties to meet, with citizens relying on them to provide critical services every day. State law, under O.C.G.A. 50-14-1(g), makes it clear that a city can hold regular and special council meetings completely virtually under emergency conditions. Unfortunately, state law concerning public hearings (such as zoning or budgetary hearings) is ambiguous. Georgia open meeting laws ensure that the public has a right to know how its government operates. Because of this, the Open Meetings Act must be read towards transparency and avoiding loopholes. Due to this lack of clarity, it is likely that holding a public hearing purely virtually is not permitted under current law.

GMA identified this as a problem for our members very early on in the pandemic and attempted to take action to gain clarity for Georgia’s cities. Since cities were in limbo as to how to safely hold public hearings during a state of emergency, GMA tried to amend the statute to make certain that public hearings could be held purely virtually during a declared emergency. Unfortunately, the bill ran out of time and did not pass both chambers of the legislature.

In order to provide clarity to our members going forward, GMA is working with ACCG to craft a bill for the 2021 legislative session, which will specify how and when local governments may hold public hearings fully online. GMA would like to take this opportunity to thank Rep. Eddie Lumdsen for carrying this vital bill. “COVID-19 has drastically changed how cities and counties conduct business,” Lumsden said. “This legislation, supported by GMA and ACCG, will ensure that local governments can safely and efficiently hold virtual public hearings for zoning, budgeting and other operations that can’t be delayed indefinitely.”

GMA also wishes to remind our members that your voice on these issues matters. It is key that your legislators hear from you regarding the issues that affect cities, such as this one, so that we can be sure that city issues are at the forefront of legislators’ minds when they embark upon the 2021 legislative session.

In the meantime, we are seeing endurance and ingenuity from our cities as they seek to abide by statutory requirements while keeping their staff and residents safe. Some cities have done so by gathering the minimum number of members required in-person for a quorum in a well-distanced location while remaining members attend virtually, with public comment being held both virtually and in-person with distancing requirements. We urge the legislature to act quickly so that this imperfect solution will only be temporary.

This story originally appeared in the January/February 2021 edition of Georgia’s Cities magazine.

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