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As coronavirus stops people from gathering, Gov. Greg Abbott suspends part of open-meetings law

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Gov. Greg Abbott declares a statewide emergency amid new cases of COVID-19 in the state on March 13, 2020 at the state capitol. Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott suspended a part of the Texas Open Meetings Act — which guarantees the public can access and participate in government meetings — Monday in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

All sections of the Texas Open Meetings Act remain in place except for the requirement of a physical gathering space for people to watch the meeting and ask questions.

While social distancing practices are in place, governmental bodies — like the city council and school board, — are expected to conduct meetings by phone or video conference, Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement.

Virtual meetings were always an option, but a public space to watch or listen to the meeting was required — this suspension nixes that.

It’s likely the case that “regular citizens aren’t clamoring to go to a large gathering of people either,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

Virtual meetings must still have 72-hour written notice online with a public toll-free, dial-in number or a free-of-charge video conference link, an online copy of the agenda, and means for public participation like two-way audio or video and public access to a recording of the meetings.

Shannon raised concerns to the governor’s office before the announcement to make sure there’s a set end period for the waiver.

“Our understanding is it is only through this current 30-day emergency declaration. If there’s a subsequent declaration it could be included in that,” Shannon said.

But an expiration date for the change is not stated in Paxton’s announcement.

In addition to video streaming, Shannon encourages governmental meetings to have call-in lines when possible, since not everyone has internet access or electronic devices at home and telephones are more readily available.

“It’s all going to come down to how governments carry this out,” Shannon said. “But, if they act in good faith and they follow the law, we feel that transparency and the public’s right to know will still be protected,” Shannon said.