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Delaware Senate Democrats

Senate Passes Legislation To Make Virtual Meetings A Permanent Option For All Delaware Public Bodies

May 13, 2021

DOVER – Building on the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Delaware State Senate on Thursday passed legislation designed to promote the use of virtual meetings beyond the current State of Emergency.

Introduced in March, Senate Bill 94 would give all public bodies in the First State — including municipalities, school boards and commissions — the option of offering a virtual component of their meetings and set out the rules public bodies must follow to ensure their virtual meetings comply with the Delaware Freedom of Information Act.

“We’ve all seen how virtual meetings can vastly expand public access and public participation over the last 14 months,” said Sen. Stephanie Hansen, D- Middletown, the prime sponsor of SB 94.

“The reality is people are far more likely to attend public meetings if they can participate from the safety and comfort of their own homes,” she said. “Here in the Senate, we’ve also seen how public bodies can advance the public good while meeting virtually. This legislation will help ensure that the expanded civic engagement and public accessibility we’ve seen during the pandemic can continue long after the current health crisis has ended.”

The current bill expands on the framework of Senate Substitute 1 for Senate Bill 243, which was signed into law in July 2020. That legislation allowed all public bodies to meet and conduct business virtually during a State of Emergency, while granting advisory bodies the ability to continue that practice beyond the current State of Emergency. SS1 for SB 243 will expire June 30 without additional action from the General Assembly.

SB 94 would permanently extend the authority for all public bodies to hold virtual meetings beyond the State of Emergency, as long as a physical anchor location is also provided where at least one presiding member will be present, documents introduced during meetings are also accessible to the public, and the body provides at least seven days’ notice of how the public can participate virtually.

Virtual public meetings would not be mandatory under SB 94, although public bodies would be required to permit a sitting member with a disability to participate virtually as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act in most cases.

“Although there was some hesitance with moving into the virtual world, we’ve seen more and more evidence that virtual meetings provide people with more opportunities to participate and watch these proceedings without having to travel, take time off from work, or arrange childcare,” said Rep. Krista Griffith, SB 94’s lead House sponsor. “Virtual meetings have led to increased transparency in government and unprecedented public attendance and participation. While many of us are looking forward to holding in-person meetings again, this emerging and proven technology should continue to be a beneficial option for public bodies.”

SB 94 now heads to the House for consideration.

“We support any legislation that makes local government more accessible to the people we serve,” said Lew Killmer, vice-mayor of the Town of Bethany Beach and president of the Delaware League of Local Governments. “Virtual meetings have been a highly effective tool during the pandemic.  This bill will give Delaware municipalities the flexibility they need to address online meetings without creating an undue burden.”