A law that authorizes public bodies to convene meetings in virtual settings will expire mid-November even as the novel coronavirus continues to spread through communities unabated in many instances.
Emergency modifications to the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act were approved in March as the first COVID-19 cases were reported in the state. Lawmakers amended the law with an automatic expiration date, believing a coordinated response to the pandemic would bring about some sense of normalcy by this time.
The decision to include the sunset provision reflects the haphazard response to a public health crisis largely ignored for political expediency. The risks presented by the novel coronavirus appear greater today than they were in March as the flu season sets in and the number of new COVID-19 cases climb higher. That seems to be the case even though statistics show testing levels have declined since late October.
Regardless of the need to extend the authorization for virtual public meetings, that authorization cannot be extended without a subsequent amendment to the state law. Lawmakers will not meet again until February unless a special session is convened.
Gov. Kevin Stitt has rejected the idea of imposing mandatory measures known to slow transmission rates of the coronavirus through communities. Like federal officials, he has pushed that responsibility to those below him, leaving those decisions to local leaders who fear public backlash and unpopularity more than the public health crisis.
As a result, the risk of contamination continues to increase in communities across the state. As a result, there remains a need for virtual meetings to protect those entrusted with conducting public business.
Even though virtual meetings pose a threat to transparency in government, we believe lawmakers should do what they must to protect public health — regardless of the costs of a special session.