Local governments decide whether to continue virtual meetings

Virtual meetings became a norm during the coronavirus pandemic, and some local governments say they will continue to offer virtual options for the public to attend meetings going forward.

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic a little more than two years ago, Gov. Eric Holcomb issued an executive order on the continuity of government that put in place temporary changes for Indiana open door and public records laws. Public meetings were allowed to go forward via video conference with no member of the government body having to be present at a meeting location.

Fast forward to almost two years later, the executive order requiring virtual meetings is no more. Holcomb rescinded the order on March 4 after signing a bill ending Indiana’s public health emergency while still protecting enhanced federal funding due to the pandemic.

Prior to the ending of the executive order, Holcomb signed a 2021 bill that allows political subdivision employees to meet virtually as long as a written policy is established, the communication is simultaneous, the public is allowed to attend and observe, and at least half of the members are physically present.

Within the following months, several local governments passed ordinances of their own about virtual meetings.

The Johnson County Board of Commissioners passed a few ordinances last year regarding the law changes that allowed board members to participate electronically under certain conditions. The board, along with the county council, redevelopment commission and American Rescue Plan Act committee plan to continue to offer Zoom links for their meetings, said Adam Gadberry, assistant county attorney.

The links to the meetings are available on the county’s website, along with recordings of past meetings, he said.

In August, the city of Greenwood passed an ordinance allowing city council members and the public to continue to participate in meetings virtually. The ordinance allows for council members to participate in meetings virtually, as long as they give 72 hours notice, and also limits not only the number of meetings that a council member can attend virtually, but also how many can participate virtually during a single meeting, according to city documents.

Now despite the governor’s order ending, the city will continue to offer virtual Zoom meetings as an option for the public to participate. This includes not only the city council, but also the city’s boards and commissions, officials say.

With the changes in state law, however, at least 50% of the council, board or commission members have to physically able to be in the meeting and at least 50% of the meetings have to be in-person annually. Also there are restrictions to what they can do final votes on during a virtual meeting, said Mayor Mark Myers.

Recordings of the meetings will also continue to be published on the city’s YouTube channel. Both the Zoom meetings and the YouTube channel make the meetings more accessible to the public, Myers said.

“We want the public to be to watch and participate in the meetings and it allows for some of our developers and clients who are out of state to be able to go online … versus having to fly or drive a long distance,” he said.

The city of Franklin is no longer offering virtual meetings as of March 3, the day the executive order was rescinded. The city had offered virtual meetings since the order was first in place, said Jayne Rhoades, Franklin clerk-treasurer.

City council meetings will continue to be live streamed on the city’s YouTube channel, however, Rhoades said.

Bargersville, like Greenwood, also adopted a virtual meeting policy last year. The town’s policy applies to both the town council and various town boards, with the exception of the Bargersville Redevelopment Commission, according to town documents.

The town’s policy limits the number of meetings council members can attend virtually and limits the number of members who participate virtually. It also says town council members cannot participate in a virtual meeting if the council plans to take final action on several monetary-related items, such as imposing a fee or adopting a budget, town documents show.

For the public, the town plans to continue to live-stream town council meetings. The meetings of other boards and are also expected to do so, said Sandra Jensen, deputy clerk-treasurer for Bargersville.

Bargersville meeting links can be found online on the town’s website, Jensen said.

Farther south on State Road 135, Trafalgar plans to continue to offer a Zoom option for its town council meetings for both the council members and the public. The town passed an electronic meeting policy last year, with similar wording to the state law and other ordinances passed by local governments.

Under Trafalgar’s policy, which mostly mimics state law, at least 50% of the town council members have to be present in-person and members cannot attend more than 50% of the council’s meetings virtually in a given year, with some exceptions. Council members also cannot participate virtually if the town council plans to take final action on several monetary-related items, according to town documents.

Trafalgar’s policy also specifies that the clerk-treasurer can participate virtually in the meetings, including casting a vote to break a tie, the policy says.

Zoom links for the town council meetings can be found on the meeting agendas on Trafalgar’s website. The clerk-treasurer’s office also publishes audio recordings of the meeting online as well, something that the town will continue to do, said Donna J. Moore, Trafalgar clerk-treasurer.

Edinburgh offered virtual meetings during the early stages of the pandemic, however, with lower COVID-19 numbers, the town has not been using them as much. When the town was offering them, there was very little use from the public, said Scott Finley, Edinburgh clerk-treasurer.

“They were mostly used to give the council and department heads a way to attend the meetings if they were unable to attend,” he said.

In the future, the town hopes to offer them at every meeting, but right now the town does not have the technology or the staff to make it convenient on a regular basis, Finely said.

For Whiteland, the town does not offer virtual meetings as of right now, said Debra Hendrickson, Whiteland clerk-treasurer.

Officials from New Whiteland, Nineveh and Princes Lakes did not respond to information requests before deadline.