Though Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill Wednesday reinstating Open Meetings Act amendments, Norman Mayor Breea Clark said waiting for the approval has caused issues in the city government’s workings.
SB 1031 allows public bodies, including city councils, to hold virtual meetings as long as material is posted online for the public to participate in the meetings. Stitt said in a release the decision to move forward on the bill came from Oklahoma residents’ requests.
“I want to thank (Senator) Pro Tem Treat, Speaker McCall and the Legislature for getting this across the finish line to my desk,” Stitt said in the release. “We’ve all heard from constituents, state agencies, local school boards and other public bodies requesting this, and I’m pleased we were able to deliver so quickly.”
Clark said in an interview she appreciates the state legislature moving quickly on the bill, but she believes the issue should have been addressed sooner.
“It's just embarrassing that they're patting themselves on the back right now for a job well done when, as I said earlier, (it’s) ‘too little too late’ and could have been addressed much, much sooner, to allow the crucial business of cities (to) continue to move forward in a pandemic,” Clark said. “I wish they would have addressed it sooner. … It just shows how little respect they have for what we do at the local level.”
Emily Virgin, state house minority leader, called for a special session to extend the bill to allow virtual meetings during a Nov. 10 press conference.
“All of this is why the House Democrats are calling for a special session to extend this provision of the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act,” Virgin said in the conference. “There’s no reason that we should force public bodies and the citizens participating in these meetings to revert back to physical meetings when this provision has served everyone very well during the time of COVID-19.”
Clark said the state legislature not allowing fully virtual meetings slowed down city productivity.
“We stopped all meetings that were not time-sensitive,” Clark said. We've canceled study sessions, we've canceled boards and commissions, because I can't ask residents who are volunteering their time to risk their health. So it definitely has slowed us down in moving (forward) on any issue that's not time critical, or COVID-19 related, which is really unfortunate.”
Clark also said Norman City Council meetings have been affected recently by members testing positive for COVID-19.
“We've had major delays and moving issues forward because we haven't been able to meet safely. … Just yesterday, we were struggling with attendance, because of COVID-19 related reasons,” Clark said. “Even if someone is COVID-19 positive or quarantining, they can now participate. Because last night, there were two wards that weren't represented that should have been and could have been if the legislature would have acted sooner.”
Stitt said the use of virtual meetings will help more Oklahomans engage with local leaders.
“We’ve seen how virtual meetings have led to more Oklahomans engaging with the people who represent them,” Stitt said in a release. “We always want to attract the best people to serve in state government, and I believe we can innovate and make it more appealing to serve on state boards and commissions regardless (of) where you live in Oklahoma.”