Even public meetings are getting an overhaul in the age of coronavirus.
A Missouri House committee approved a bill Monday to let government bodies close physical meetings to the public during a disease outbreak so long as they do other things to stay accessible.
Under the latest version from Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, officials who close a meeting for health reasons would have to livestream it if reasonably possible. Otherwise, they would have to record it and make the recording available within 24 hours.
Entities like city councils, school boards and the legislature would also have to accept written testimony from the public, have it presented at the closed meeting and then make that available within 24 hours, too.
"Credentialed" news reporters would also be able to attend the meetings, regardless of the restrictions.
The changes come as Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and top local officials are urging a pause on public gatherings expecting 50 or more people in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
In her testimony to the committee, Coleman also emphasized that the new powers could only be used during an official state of emergency declared in response to a contagious disease outbreak.
“It's really important that this not be done on an ad hoc basis, that this not be done to try to limit public access,” she said. “We want to make sure that there is full transparency, and that this is done for extraordinary circumstances.”
There was some limited discomfort with her ideas.
Rep. Ian Mackey, D-St. Louis, worried the bill would cut off essential face-to-face interaction the public usually has with legislators in the Capitol.
"I think if they're not in the building,” Mackey said, “there's no amount of technology that is going to allow stakeholder groups to be a part of the drafting process, the amendment process, to be clued in every step along the way as to what this final product is going to be."
“I think a bill like this just cuts them off,” he added.
A large majority of the committee came around and voted it out 12-2, though, and key advocates for open records were mostly satisfied.
Jean Maneke, an attorney for the Missouri Press Association, said she was mostly just relieved to see Coleman's bill changed from a wide-ranging product placing new limits on open records to a bill dealing specifically with the current emergency.
"There's some minor things that I would have liked to change, but at some point you just fight the battles that are the important battles," Maneke said.
The bill now moves to the House floor for debate. It will take two votes of the full House there to send it to the Senate.
The legislation is House Bill 2725.