The COVID-19 pandemic has never been worse in Oklahoma, and at the end of this week, public bodies must go back to meeting in person.
A temporary change to the state’s open meetings act that allowed remote meetings expires on Sunday. That has state agencies and local governments trying to figure out how to meet safely.
The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board will go back to meeting at Kate Barnard Community Corrections Center, which staff believe can be set up to maintain distancing and allow the public online access. But parole board members like retired Judge Allen McCall indicated last week they’ll push lawmakers to extend the ability to meet remotely.
"As much as I don’t like doing this right now, what we’re doing, I think it’s probably – in the interest of public safety, it’s probably the best that we continue to do this for at least a period of time until we start to see some kind of decline in what’s going on," McCall said.
The parole board’s general counsel believes they just need a quorum present physically and other members can participate remotely.
Other public bodies aren’t taking chances.
The Tulsa parks board canceled its December meeting, citing risk of spreading the virus.
"We’ve got to be as aggressive as we can at continuing to protect everybody, I think," said Parks Director Anna America.
Oklahoma Municipal League Deputy General Counsel Daniel McClure told the Coalition of Tulsa Area Governments last week that extending the ability to hold virtual meetings is one of their main legislative agenda items.
"It obviously won’t be done before the Nov. 15 deadline. And so, after Nov. 15, we’re going to have to go back to in-person meetings, but hopefully, as soon as the legislature gets going we can get that through as soon as possible," McClure said.
City of Tulsa Chief Operating Officer Jack Blair said the city council is coming up with a plan for in-person meetings where participants may be in different rooms or employ other safety measures because it appears Oklahoma’s part-time legislature won’t take up the open meetings issue for months yet.
"I have heard pretty definitively that there will not be a special session for this purpose, which means that the earliest opportunity for the legislature to adopt an extension of that would be in February," Blair told the city parks board last week.
At least two city employees have died from COVID-19: police officer Jerad Lindsey and a crossing guard who has not been named.