On a split vote, the state House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs recommended a bill that proposes to amend the state open meetings law to allow city and county governments to hold virtual meetings during a state of emergency.
Rep. Spencer Hawks, R-Conway, said House Bill 1056 would apply to all states of emergency, including but not limited to the current public health emergency declaration, and he noted that the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act was passed in 1967.
"We've come a long way with technology since then, and we have learned a lot through this virus," he said.
The bill does not include the Arkansas Legislature.
Hawks ran the bill on behalf of its lead sponsor, Rep. Lanny Fite, R-Benton. Fite did not attend the meeting after learning that he had tested positive for the coronavirus Wednesday. He had been quarantining since Jan. 13 because he sits next to Rep. Milton Nicks, D-Marion, in the House chamber. Nicks informed House leadership that he had tested positive for the virus that day.
Rep. Justin Gonzales, R-Okolona, said he agreed with the general idea of the bill, but was concerned about the public's ability to give input during virtual meetings.
"I know we've had meetings with the governor and amongst ourselves through telephone, and sometimes it seemed to be a disaster when you're trying to take questions from people," he said.
Lindsey Bailey French, legal counsel for the Association of Arkansas Counties, said remote meetings are "certainly not ideal," but many quorum courts are already holding hybrid meetings, where most members attend in person but people who are ill, quarantined or have another reason not to attend in person. One quorum court is meeting entirely virtually, she said.
In response to a question from Gonzales about why the legislation was needed if virtual or quasi-virtual meetings are already being held, French said state law is ambiguous as to whether that's allowed. Lawmakers passed temporary legislation allowing cities and counties to do so during a special session on coronavirus measures last year, but it expired Dec. 31.
Rep. John Payton, R-Wilburn, said he would support the bill but would like to see it amended to ensure that votes in virtual meetings are recorded.
"I think it's important that we do this and I recognize the need for it, I would just like to see incorporated in it, if you're on a virtual meeting and you're taking a vote for legislation or rules, that it would be a recorded vote," Payton said.
French said that requirement is already state law, pointing to Arkansas Code Annotated 14-14-905.
Hawks urged his colleagues to "not miss a tree for a forest."
"We can iron some of these details out late, but this is for a state of emergency. Let's get this done so cities can operate the way they want to operate with that clarity," he said.
Payton said he would vote for the bill, though he'd still like to see an amendment. Gonzales said he was still opposed. The bill passed on a voice vote with several audible nays, meaning it will be referred to the House.
Sen. Lance Eads, R-Springdale, is the bill's co-sponsor in the Senate.