In March of 2020, the Maine Legislature passed temporary legislation that allowed public proceedings to be conducted using electronic platforms such as Zoom. (P.L. 2019, c. 617, Pt. G, § 1, codified at 1 M.R.S. § 403-A). However, with Governor Mills set to end Maine’s State of Civil Emergency, this emergency legislation will automatically expire on July 30, 2021.
Because the use of remote meetings has proven effective over the past year, the Legislature passed – and Governor Mills has signed – new emergency legislation that allows public bodies (i.e., select boards, planning boards, boards of appeals, county commissioners, utility district boards of trustees, etc.) to continue conducting remote meetings or allowing board or committee members to participate in in-person meetings remotely. The catch: remote meetings are permitted only if a public body complies with a specific set of criteria. This legislation became effective June 21, 2021. (LD 32, P.L. 2021, c. 290, codified at 1 M.R.S. § 403-B).
In order to take advantage of this remote meeting option after July 30, 2021, municipalities, counties, and public utility districts must take the following steps, and keep the following provisions in mind:
- Written Policy Required: Each public body must, after notice and a hearing, adopt a written policy that sets out how remote meetings, and remote participation by members of the public, will occur. While a one-size-fits all policy for each municipality or county may be feasible, note that LD 32 requires that each body review and adopt this policy separately.
- In-Person Meetings Are Default: LD 32 does not allow public bodies to permanently switch to exclusively remote meetings. Instead, public bodies’ written policies must specify that fully remote meetings, or remote participation by a member of the body conducting an in-person meeting, may only occur under the following circumstances:
- During a public emergency or other urgency, such as a pandemic, snow storm, or other major weather event;
- When a member of the body is ill, or would otherwise have difficulty travelling, that member (but not the entire body) may participate by remote means;
- Where members of a statewide body, such as the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, are separated by significant distances, such that meeting remotely would be more efficient; or
- Where a public body’s jurisdiction has geographic features that may slow or impede travel – which is particularly the case for island communities, or where some public body members may not be able to travel to a meeting by car.
- Meaningful Participation by the Public; Documents Available: As was the case with the previous emergency legislation, members of the public must be afforded a meaningful opportunity to participate in remote meetings, ideally by also utilizing Zoom or other electronic medium used by the public body. This also means that members of the public must also be able to directly communicate with the public body – simply reading messages from the public into the record is insufficient. Moreover, the public body must provide the public with electronic versions of all documents being reviewed or considered during the public meeting – ideally a scanned PDF document posted on a public website in advance. Note that this requirement only applies “when members of the body participate by remote methods.”
- Sufficient Notice: As with all public meetings, notice to the public must be provided in advance, in accordance with 1 M.R.S. § 406. However, when conducted remotely, this public notice must include information regarding how the public can participate remotely, i.e., a Zoom link or similar information.
- Roll Call Vote Required: As many public bodies have become accustomed to during the COVID-19 pandemic, all votes taken during remote meetings must be conducted by roll-call vote.
- Town Meetings MUST Be In Person: Finally, municipalities must be aware that LD 32 does not allow town meetings to be conducted remotely.
After July 30, 2021, no public body in Maine may continue to conduct remote meetings, or allow for remote participation by members at in-person meetings, until it has adopted a written policy that complies with LD 32. As such, municipalities and counties are encouraged to reach out to their Jensen Baird attorney soon, to ensure that these required policies are approved before this deadline.