Virtual public meetings protect health, allow democratic representation during pandemic (Guest Post)

Despite the rise in COVID-19 cases nationwide and in Oklahoma, as well as the increased risk associated with indoor gatherings, both the Governor and the Legislature have so far refused to convene a brief special session to allow governmental agencies to continue to meet virtually. This decision, or lack thereof, comes in spite of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s repeated pleas for vulnerable populations to stay home in a state that ranks in the bottom 10 for health. A special session, which can be called by either the Governor or the state Legislature, can immediately address this policy failure. Our state faces a substantial surge in COVID-19 cases due to holiday gatherings, and every day their delayed action yields increased danger for the public and local public servants.

Passed by the Legislature this spring, Senate Bill 661 allowed public meetings to be held virtually and remain compliant with the Open Meetings Act. The temporary measure expired on Nov. 15, which has forced the state’s 597 municipal bodies (ranging from school boards to city councils to state commissions) to resume meeting in person. As a result, members of these governing bodies, their staff, and their families are forced to risk exposure to COVID-19 to do their jobs, which includes carrying out basic functions of local government alongside the urgent economic and public health needs created by the virus. Most of these meetings, now being held in person, require in-person community participation as well. As a result, members of the public will put their lives at risk in order to weigh in on important decisions in their communities.

These governing boards and local government have borne the brunt of the swift and unprecedented work of addressing the pandemic, and it is reckless to now force them to meet in-person. Given Oklahoma’s current case and hospitalization trajectories, it is nearly inevitable that a group responsible for making urgent decisions regarding hospitals, schools, business, and communities will not be able to meet to directly address urgent matters. As we have already seen: 

  • The Hulbert city council cancelled meetings due the very first week the virtual meetings provision expired due to COVID exposures.
  • The City of the Village has cancelled four of five meetings since the provision expired due to COVID exposures.
  • A Tulsa city councilor tested positive for COVID-19, which left his constituents unrepresented during a series of key votes when he couldn’t attend remotely.

In most Oklahoma counties this month, there is roughly a 60 percent chance that a gathering of 25 people will contain one person who has COVID-19, according to the Georgia Institute of Technology. As caseloads increase, further inaction from the Governor and Legislature will continue to effectively hamstring our state’s public health response, economic response, and ability to self-govern. This does not have to continue. The Governor and Legislature have the power to live up to the Oklahoma Standard and take the kind of compassion-driven action in this crisis that the people deserve. A special session will save lives; Gov. Stitt and the Legislature must act now.

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About the Author

Laura Bellis is a community organizer and educator, working across health, education, and social justice spaces. She serves as Executive Director of the Take Control Initiative, a health equity program focused on contraceptive access in Tulsa. Laura earned her B.A. from Oberlin College. She came to Tulsa via Teach for America and taught for five years at Hale Junior High prior to joining the Take Control Team. Laura is deeply involved in the community as a founding leader of The United League for Social Action (TULSA), a research- and policy-focused grassroots organization working for transparency and accountability from law enforcement; a founding member of Demanding a Just Tulsa; a founding leader of Save Our State: Oklahomans United, a grassroots effort focused on COVID-19 policy advocacy; and Chair of the Human Rights Commission of the City of Tulsa. 



The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

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