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House division OK's — remotely — more local governing via video

It’s fitting the House Local Government Division met Wednesday with members participating miles apart from one another.

After all, it approved a pair of bills dealing with governing remotely.

Sponsored by Rep. Erin Koegel (DFL-Spring Lake Park), HF820, as amended, would remove a statutory limit to allow a member of a public body to participate remotely more than three times in the first six months of 2021.

Following division approval, it was sent to the House State Government Finance and Elections Committee. A companion, SF852, sponsored by Sen. John Jasinski (R-Faribault), awaits action by the full Senate.

The same result occurred with HF1140, as amended. Sponsored by Rep. Steve Elkins (DFL-Bloomington), it would update provisions of the Open Meeting Law to reflect modern technology used by public bodies for remote meetings and ensure the public can comment remotely during a public comment period if in-person attendance is not feasible due to a health pandemic or emergency. It has no Senate companion.

Pat Beety, general counsel for the League of Minnesota Cities, said Koegel’s bill reflects today’s pandemic-related world.

Where local units of government are holding in-person meetings, concern has been raised by participants who may be at a greater risk of serious complications if they or a family member contact COVID-19. A medical exemption allowing remote participation is permitted under state law; however, it has a three-meeting cap per year.

“Impacted elected officials, because of the letter of the law, are left in a really strange position of either risking their health by going to that in-person meeting or being in a remote location that needs to, according to the law right now, be open and accessible to the public,” Beety said. “Some elected officials have resorted to sitting out on the curb or their front step, or in their car when it’s been cold, just so they can participate in the meeting and be at that accessible, open location.”

“Modernizing the Open Meeting Law will not only improve access in a pandemic, it will also ensure members of the public and the board are engaged more fully in our democracy in the future,” Molly Malone, Murray County commissioner and a policy associate at the Center for Rural Affairs wrote in a statement of support.

The League of Minnesota Cities, Minnesota School Boards Association, Minnesota Association of Townships and Association of Minnesota Counties also submitted a joint letter of support for the bill.

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