Cities Contemplate the Legal Issues of Virtual Operations
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.