Cities Contemplate the Legal Issues of Virtual Operations

Rusi Patel

Tuesday, June 16th, 2020

It was not long ago that many of us were at the Cities United Summit in Atlanta attending various sessions and trainings in-person to educate ourselves and help educate others on community improvements.
In many ways, the Cities United Summit feels like it hap­pened in a different lifetime, when the biggest news stories in the world were the Australian wildfires, the impeachment trial of President Trump, and sadly, the death of Kobe Bryant. It would have been hard to fathom in late January that none of those stories would be anywhere close to the story of the year.
The COVID-19 crisis, of course, hit like a fury and has caused largescale impacts in every facet of society. Many of these impacts will not be realized for months or even years. Legal issues relating to local govern­ments are not immune to these lasting impacts, and many municipalities are discovering the needs of their communities. Infra­structure needs in partic­ular have changed, and such changes involve potential legal issues be­cause the laws may or may not be equipped to handle these novel times.
For instance, Georgia’s Open Meetings laws specifically allow for teleconference meetings during emergency conditions, but many cities discovered their public technology infrastructure was sorely lack­ing for such a situation.
Cities across the state were left scrambling to piece together public technology infrastructure tools which could be utilized to hold public meetings and to allow city workers to continue to provide valuable services to residents while working remotely.
While some Georgia laws, such as the Open Meet­ings Act, do provide for municipal flexibility, other laws or the lack of laws prevented action or caused confu­sion. As an example, questions as to how public hear­ings could be conducted during the COVID-19 crisis abounded.
Additionally, purely virtual meetings and tele­working options raised questions about accessibility requirements under the law. How would a city accom­modate disabled or elderly people on such virtual meetings? What resources needed to be made avail­able for disabled employees so they might continue to work? Remember, technological infrastructure is still infrastructure.
The legal questions around these issues will not disappear with the hopeful elimination of the corona­virus. The world is chang­ing, and municipalities will have to contemplate the legal issues around new and improved types of in­frastructure that allow the world to operate virtually and remotely.
These legal issues range from legal challenges to the provision of broadband, to how to electronically execute contracts and permits for new projects or con­duct meetings virtually. Even though the COVID-19 threat will eventually pass, the new normal in terms of infrastructure needs will not, and municipalities will need to prepare themselves for the variety of novel legal issues which such needs will present. GMA will continue to serve as a resource and advocate on behalf of cities for their infrastructure needs as we progress into this new era.

This article appears in the May/June 2020 edition of Georgia’s Cities Magazine.