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Delaware Senate Democrats

Delaware Senate moves to allow virtual public meetings in wake of pandemic response

June 17, 2019

DOVER – The Delaware State Senate, gathered in a virtual meeting of their own, advanced legislation to expand the ability of other public bodies to hold meetings online.

Introduced last week, Senate Substitute 1 for Senate Bill 243 would amend the Freedom of Information Act in Delaware to allow a wide array of advisory task forces, commissions, boards, and other bodies to hold public meetings electronically, if certain public notice and public access requirements are met.

The bill passed the Senate 16-5 on Tuesday.

Boards, commissions, and other public groups that make decisions on permitting, licensing, appeals, and other questions regarding individual legal rights and remedies are not covered by the legislation.

“This legislation incorporates several initiatives to modernize our public meetings, some of which we have been working on for over a year” said Senator Stephanie Hansen, D-Middletown. “With the pandemic response greatly accelerating the need for virtual meeting guidelines, I am hopeful we can get this passed in both chambers before the June 30 deadline.”

“The provisions in this bill aim to modernize our state and local government and to make our public meetings more accessible and transparent. Delawareans have always rightfully expected that, and the General Assembly has worked slowly, but steadily, to deliver. With the possibility that a second wave of COVID-19 forces us back into strict social distancing, that work has turned into something far more urgent and important.”

In light of the continued threat of COVID-19, SS 1 for SB 243 provides that all public bodies will be able to meet virtually if a second state of emergency is declared. Additionally, the bill grants the Governor the power to provide all public bodies with the ability to meet virtually by executive order until June 30, 2021.

The bill does not mandate virtual meetings. It does, however, provide that members of advisory and non-advisory public bodies with a disability can participate virtually in the meetings of those public bodies as a reasonable accommodation.

“I have always been proud of the many ways Delaware includes constituents in the work of government,” said Senate Majority Leader Nicole Poore, D-New Castle. “Enabling our citizens to attend meetings virtually is incredibly important in more ways than one. Although it is just one part of what this bill does, I am most proud of what it will mean for individuals with disabilities and their families – Delawareans who have incredibly important insight to lend to our task forces and other boards, and who cannot always make every in-person meeting in every part of the state. I have no doubt this bill will improve participation in state and local government, and that’s something that can only benefit our democratic process.”

“I was pleased to work on this pivotal piece of legislation, which supports the operations of multiple boards, commissions, and branches of government by providing a mechanism to allow actions to be made even in the midst of a state of emergency like what we’ve seen,” said Senator Anthony Delcollo, R-Marshallton. “Checks and balances are a key part of our government, and this bill effectuates that principle. Equally pivotal is the added flexibility this bill offers to those who may be unable to attend in person due to a medical condition, so that they may participate as members on various boards and commissions.”

Mirroring some of the requirements found in the updated rules allowing the state House and Senate to meet in a virtual format, participants joining a meeting virtually must be able to see and hear the proceedings, as with videoconferencing, or just hear, if participating by phone.

Recognizing that there are significant portions of Delaware without reliable internet service, the bill requires an “anchor location” for the meeting of an advisory body where members of the public who would like to attend the meeting in-person can do so with one or more members of the advisory body present.

Over time, the State of Delaware has formed hundreds of citizen boards, commissions, task forces, councils, and other public bodies to guide legislative and executive efforts including  16 active task forces today.

This bill focuses on the many public bodies that are purely advisory in nature and are made up primarily of volunteer citizens. They submit reports and recommendations to the Legislature and executive branch agencies on many issues considered in Dover, but often have difficulty reaching a quorum and taking action since only in-person attendance is currently counted.

Senate Substitute 1 for Senate Bill 243 now heads to the House for consideration.