Update: Governor Murphy signed this bill into law on March 20, 2020. Many public agencies are already conducting electronic meetings.
The New Jersey Legislature is currently considering numerous bills in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic. One bill is A3850, which passed in the Assembly on March 16, 2020, and will likely also pass in the Senate very soon. A3850 amends a public body’s obligations under the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) during a state of emergency. Because this is Sunshine Week and transparency is very important during a crisis, we decided to devote a blog to this pending bill.
Public Bodies May Conduct Electronic Meetings
The amended law would provide that during a state of emergency, public health emergency, or state of local disaster emergency, a public body may perform any of the following by “means of communication or other electronic equipment:”
- conduct a meeting and public business at that meeting,
- cause a meeting to be open to the public,
- vote, or
- receive public comment.
Conducting any of those activities electronically during a statement of emergency will not be considered a violation of OPMA.
The bill does not provide a definition for “means of communication or other electronic equipment.” Most public agencies will likely utilize video conferencing programs that permit the public to view a public meeting and participate in the public comment section in real time during the meeting. Those agencies will likely also accept public comments by email or phone for those who do not have such technology.
Public Bodies May Give Electronic Notice of Meetings
The bill also allows for electronic notice of public meetings at least 48 hours in advance of a meeting, giving the time, date, location and, to the extent known, the agenda of any regular, special or rescheduled meeting. The notice must also accurately state whether any formal action may or may not be taken at such a meeting. Importantly, to the extent practicable, a public body providing only electronic notice of a meeting pursuant to the new law shall limit public business discussed or effectuated at the meeting to matters necessary for the continuing operation of government and which relate to the applicable emergency declaration.
We will provide an update when this bill is signed into law.
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