MONTICELLO — While some municipalities in White County have postponed or canceled meetings, others have continued to conduct essential business as it relates to operations and issues related to health, safety and response to COVID-19.
When Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb issued an executive order for people to stay at home to slow the spread of the virus, it also included a recommendation that gatherings be limited to 10 people or less.
That 10-person limit can be easily met — or nearly met — by just the members of some, if not most, governing bodies, leaving little to no room for others; however, exceptions are usually made for local media to cover the meetings.
To help governing bodies comply with the order while still attempting to conduct essential business, some required provisions of the Open Door Law (ODL) and Access to Public Records Act (APRA) have been suspended — at least until after the pandemic eases.
According to Luke Britt, Indiana’s public access counselor, Holcomb’s Executive Order 20-09 temporarily suspends public agencies’ and governing bodies’ requirement to have any members physically present for a public meeting for the duration of the coronavirus emergency.
“They can only meet if they have to for essential operations,” he said. “Anything that’s critical to the operations of government, essential functions such as public safety, EMS, fire safety and those kind of things. Any meeting that will need to be convened to address the (coronavirus) emergency itself would also be essential.”
It also authorizes all governing bodies to conduct a public meeting by videoconference or by telephone conference if a quorum (minimum number of members present for a legal meeting) exists and any meeting is made available to members of the public and media.
On March 19, Twin Lakes School Corporation had informed the public it would broadcast its meeting live on YouTube, but the link was never made publicly available.
When asked about the meeting being unavailable, Superintendent Michael Galvin apologized and said there were “technical difficulties with the recording” of the meeting.
The Monticello Board of Works and Safety, and the Common Council, have met three times to address COVID-19 and essential governmental business as it relates to personnel issues. During those meetings, at least two members have used FaceTime or other videoconferencing tools to attend. Although those members were technically in attendance, they were not allowed to vote.
And on March 31, the White County Commissioners conducted a meeting concerning Indiana Beach — a hot topic in White County since Feb. 18, before the COVID-19 outbreak — when the owners of the 94-year-old amusement and water park resort announced it was closing due to financial reasons.
Adhering to public health recommendations of keeping gatherings to 10 people or less, only the commissioners, other elected leaders and the media were allowed to attend, with the Herald Journal providing a Facebook Live stream of that meeting for the public.
Britt said meetings should be postponed or canceled if it doesn’t concern essential matters critical to government operations.
“The Open Door Law does not require a governing body to provide advance public notice to cancel or postpone a public meeting or executive session,” he said. “We advise agencies to notify the news media of any cancellation and provide notice on the agency’s website and social media as far in advance as practicable.”
Public records access
Holcomb’s order suspends parts of the Access to Public Records Act (APRA) until 8 a.m. April 7, unless he issues an extension of the emergency. People won’t be able to request public records in person or over the phone; instead, people must submit their requests via US mail, email or fax.
It also postpones the policy that deems a public record request denied if the agency does not acknowledge it within seven days. Agencies are required to acknowledge receipt of a request during this period “in reasonable time” after April 7.