We at the Athens City Commission on Disabilities are writing to recommend amending the Open Meetings Act to make exceptions for individuals living with disabilities. We know that many people with disabilities are unable to participate in public meetings at this time, and strongly suggest new legislation to allow us to participate remotely. During the pandemic, H.B. 404 allowed city and statewide entities to conduct business virtually and enabled government entities to safely continue to function. Since March 2020, Ohio state and city entities and other public bodies have proven that public business can be conducted virtually.
Even before the pandemic, Ohio’s Open Meeting Law recognized only in-person participation. This creates a barrier to full participation for those living with physical limitations, medical conditions, and temporary disabilities who can only participate remotely. Full participation includes being counted toward meeting quorum and having votes counted in public decision-making.
It is worth noting that our commission meeting membership and community participation actually increased because of the ability to attend from the safety of our homes. Returning to in person meetings has impeded our ability to consistently meet quorum and conduct business.
We recommend legislation that:
- Allows persons participating remotely to have their presence included when quorum is being established and their votes counted
- Recognizes that a person living with a disability has the right under the Americans with Disabilities Act to request and be granted reasonable accommodation, such as attending a meeting remotely
- Includes practices that promote transparency such as voting by roll calls, publicizing remote links, and documenting platforms of participating membership, so that the spirit of the Open Meetings Law continues to be met.
Many states have already put in place similar legislation that recognizes the importance of inclusion for persons living with disabilities and allows for similar provisions. Some states allow both in person and remote participation for all citizens conducting public business, regardless of disability status.
The Athens City Commission on Disabilities is a vibrant commission with active committees focused on improving the life for people living with disabilities in the Athens community. Our by-laws state that over half of our membership are people living with disabilities, which enriches and provides context for deliberation and decision-making. We encourage the State of Ohio to pass legislation that demonstrates its commitment to inclusion for persons living with disabilities. By making accommodations for more people with mobility, physical, mental health, auto-immune, and other disabilities serve in public meetings, we will make Ohio stronger and more inclusive.
The commission has asked our state leadership to support a change in the open meeting laws, and we seek our community’s support for this request. Please join us in letting your state representatives know how important this is for our community.
Bouvier sits on the Athens City Commission on Disabilities, serving as a secretary and on the executive committee.