Senate Substitute 1 for Senate Bill 243

150th General Assembly (2019 - 2020)

Bill Progress

Signed 7/23/20
The General Assembly has ended, the current status is the final status.

Bill Details

Since 2009, when video-conferencing was first permitted under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) by Senate Bill No. 104 (145th General Assembly), technology has continued to evolve and the need to provide more mechanisms for participation by members of public bodies and the public has grown. In addition, under the Governor's March 12, 2020, Declaration of a State of Emergency for the State of Delaware Due to a Public Health Threat “State of Emergency” and House Concurrent Resolution No. 85 (“HCR 85”), public bodies in Delaware have been successfully holding virtual meetings. This Act amends FOIA to allow a public body to hold a meeting electronically if specific notice and public access requirements are met. The notice and access requirements follow the guidelines established under HCR 85. This Act gives “advisory bodies” the broadest ability to hold virtual meetings because the vast majority of citizen boards, commissions, task forces, and councils currently in place in Delaware are comprised of volunteer citizens, who serve without pay, and who are charged with providing advice to administrative agencies, the legislature, and others in government. Advisory bodies meet to review data and discuss the programs or operations of particular governmental bodies, to provide advice and recommendations to governmental bodies and members of the public on particular issues, to confer and issue opinions regarding legislation on particular public policy issues, and to provide support and direction for particular public policy goals. There are other boards, commissions, and councils that meet to decide whether to grant or deny certain rights, remedies, or privileges to specific individuals or legal entities, such as a permit, a license, an appeal, or other decision by the board that has legal significance in a subsequent hearing. Boards that have the authority to decide rights, remedies, or privileges in specific situations are not considered advisory bodies under this Act. Frequently, advisory bodies have a difficult time conducting business because business can only be conducted when a quorum of the advisory body is present at the physical meeting location. As a result, some advisory bodies go months without being able to make quorum, members become discouraged, the advisory body stops holding regular meetings, and eventually becomes ineffectual. Delaware agencies and citizens have made great strides in utilizing the technology to conduct virtual meetings since the State of Emergency was ordered as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, shortfalls with this technology have been experienced, including the knowledge that significant portions of our State are not yet served with the quality of internet service necessary to support virtual participation in which the participant can be both heard and seen. For this reason, this Act encourages virtual participation encompassing both the ability to hear and see all participants, but also allows technology that only provides the ability to hear all participants. Under this Act, if an advisory body holds a virtual meeting when there is no state of emergency or threat of a public health emergency, members of public must be able to monitor the meeting virtually or in-person at a physical location. If the advisory body is required to accept public comment or provides the opportunity for public comment, the public must be able to participate virtually or at the physical location. Specifically, this Act does all of the following: 1. Allows an advisory body to hold a virtual meeting at any time, if there is an anchor location that is open to the public and 1 or more members of the advisory body attend the meeting at the anchor location. 2. During a state of emergency, allows any public body to hold a virtual meeting. If all members of a public body are elected by the public to serve on the public body, there are requirements to ensure that members have contemporaneous access to documents and the public has the ability to monitor the proceeding and provide public comment, if public comment is otherwise allowed by statute. 3. Permits the Governor, by executive order, to allow all public bodies to hold virtual meetings if necessary to prevent a public health emergency. 4. Clarifies that if its members are not all elected by the public to serve on the public body, a public body must allow a member with a disability to attend a meeting electronically as a reasonable accommodation under § 4504 of Title. If all of the members of the public body are elected by the public, then a public body must allow a member with a disability to attend a meeting electronically unless doing so would present an undue burden. This Act does not revise § 10006 of Title 29, the existing video-conferencing section, because § 10006 permits more types of public bodies to conduct a meeting through video-conferencing than are permitted to conduct a virtual meeting under this Act in the absence of a state of emergency or executive order by the Governor. Senate Substitute No. 1 for Senate Bill No. 243 differs from Senate Bill No. 243 as follows: Section 1 sets forth the findings and intent of the General Assembly regarding the use of technology to improve access to public meetings for all Delawareans and in particular, individuals with disabilities. Section 1 also clarifies that it is the intent of the General Assembly to incorporate the well-established body of law that requires places of public accommodation to provide reasonable accommodations to individuals with disabilities if the accommodation can be provided without imposing an undue burden on the place of public accommodation. Section 2 makes technical corrections to conform existing law to the standards of the Delaware Legislative Drafting Manual. Section 4 revises the new virtual meeting section, as follows: 1. Reorganizes the new § 10006A for clarity. 2. Revises language to improve clarity and incorporate concerns from stakeholders. 3. Clarifies that a public body that is composed entirely of members elected by the public to the public body may allow a member with a disability to attend a public meeting through a means of electronic communication as a reasonable accommodation. 4. Allows any public body, at the discretion of the chair or presiding officer, to allow the public to monitor or provide public comment through the use of an electronic means of communication. 5. Requires that if a public body holds a virtual meeting, the public must be able to monitor the virtual meeting electronically, and, if applicable, provide public comment through the use of a means of electronic communication. Section 5 sunsets § 10006A, the new virtual meeting provisions, in its entirety, on June 30, 2021. This sunset provision anticipates continued work by agencies and public stakeholders to learn from experience using technology to hold virtual public meetings and to revise this section during the next legislative session to reflect lessons learned through experience. Finally, Senate Substitute No. 1 for Senate Bill No. 243 states that passage of this Act requires a greater than majority vote for passage because § 1 of Article IX of the Delaware Constitution requires the affirmative vote of two-thirds of the members elected to each house of the General Assembly to amend a charter issued to a municipal corporation.
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