The Butler Tech Board of Education held an electronic meeting, with members logging in from their homes. Ohio’s attorney general said such meetings may be allowed during the extreme circumstance of a health emergency declared over the coronavirus. MIKE RUTLEDGE/STAFF
Photo: Rutledge, Mike (CMG-Dayton)
Photo: Rutledge, Mike (CMG-Dayton)

How some Butler County governments are meeting remotely while distancing

The state’s Open Meetings laws don’t allow such a thing, but Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, who received “numerous questions” about what local governments should do about meetings, said it may be allowed during the extreme conditions of a declared emergency over COVID-19. But he advised local officials to consult with their own lawyers.

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A state lawmaker has introduced a bill to allow open meetings to be held by teleconference or video conference when the governor has declared a public health emergency.

Ohio Rep. Lisa Sobecki, D-Toledo, introduced House Bill 557. The House is scheduled to meet next on Tuesday, the Senate next Wednesday.

Butler Tech’s Board of Education held one such meeting Tuesday, with President Michael Berding and a technology expert at the school’s Bioscience Center in case citizens would show up to participate. None did.

“It’s actually up on our Facebook page,” said Butler Tech spokeswoman A.J. Huff. It was streamed live, using Facebook Live.

“We still maintained the ability for (citizens) to come in for public participation, and then all of our other board members and several administrators logged on using our Zoom account,” Huff said.

The school has been using Zoom software to allow online conferencing for meetings, and to connect students with teachers and each other during the social-distancing period.

“The good thing is you can see people, and you can hear” them speaking, Huff said. Anyone viewing the meeting as it happened could “chat” by typing messages, and that was monitored so the people “attending” the meeting could answer questions.

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The meeting’s biggest decision was an action that allowed emergency payments to hourly employees for work they will need to do even while the school is closed, such as cleaning buildings when needed, computer work, and tasks for the treasurer’s office that can’t be done remotely.

Eleven people are on the Butler Tech board, one for each school district that works with the school. At the meeting’s start, everyone rose for the Pledge of Allegiance, with Patrick Meade of Talawanda Schools holding up a flag.

“This has been an interesting board meeting,” the Rev. Gregory Tyus of Middletown said during the session. “I certainly would not advocate for this happening in this manner.”

Given the need to prevent the spread of disease, and the declaration of an emergency, Yost wrote that such meetings might be allowable.

“Under this very limited fact pattern, there may be a basis for local public bodies to use electronic means to meet and comply with the law,” Yost wrote in a letter addressed to “Dear Local Official.” He continued: “You should discuss this matter with your legal counsel before making any decisions.”

In Hamilton, staff on March 11 marked off every other seat as a place people should not sit to create some distance in the audience, and an official mentioned concern that even citizens sharing a pen to sign in to speak could spread disease. An electronic meeting may happen as a “worst case” option, City Manager Joshua Smith said Tuesday.

“There has been no decisions made in regards to next Wednesday’s meeting of Council,” he wrote, via email. “The day-to-day directives from the state and federal governments has been so fluid, it is hard to predict what happens 8 days from now.”

He noted he hadn’t consulted with city council, “but I believe our worst case is we hold a tele-meeting with full public and media access. We will look to continued guidance from the state attorney general on how to proceed and to remain compliant with state and federal directives regarding gatherings, etc.”

Elsewhere:

  • Middletown’s council met Tuesday with council members spread out around the dais and city staff sitting at a table with social distancing. The council, which uses YouTube to show its meetings, next will meet April 7. The city’s charter does not allow cancellation of council meetings, which must happen twice a month.
  • Fairfield’s council still plans to meet Monday, but the makeup is still undetermined. It may be limited to the 8 council members, the city manager and clerk of council. It will be streamed online.
  • West Chester will have its next trustees’ meeting Tuesday, and is discouraging the public from attending the meeting, which will be streamed live on its YouTube channel. The public will be able to submit questions in advance by email.
  • Liberty Township is weighing the options for its April 7 meeting, and other meetings later in the month.

Michael D. Pitman, Ed Richter and Denise G. Callahan contributed

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