The Journal Gazette
Friday, October 01, 2021 1:00 am

State: EACS obeying Open Door

Counselor rejects complaint over small venue, masks

ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

East Allen County Schools did not violate Indiana's Open Door Law when it conducted board meetings in a room that couldn't accommodate every attendee, the state's public access counselor found.

Desiree Koger-Gustafson filed a complaint with the Office of the Public Access Counselor alleging the EACS board denied the public access to meetings held April 20 and May 4 by not relocating to a bigger venue and by requiring attendees to wear masks, according to an advisory opinion issued over the summer by Luke Britt.

EACS typically holds board meetings in its board room, which has limited seating during the coronavirus pandemic due to social distancing. Along with offering an overflow area for larger crowds, the district has offered the public the option to attend remotely via Zoom.

Meetings during the pandemic have had seating for about a dozen members of the public.

In a response to the complaint, EACS said the board let all interested individuals observe and speak at both meetings in question, Britt wrote. The district also contended it had no obligation to relocate the meetings, he said, “especially when doing so may degrade the experience of individuals attending the meeting via Zoom.”

Britt said the Open Door Law doesn't expressly require governing bodies to relocate meetings, and the public's statutory right to observe public meetings isn't absolute because of considerations including room capacity. “This was true even before the capacity restrictions and social distancing measures related to the pandemic,” Britt wrote.

Further, he said, legislation passed this year gives governing bodies the ability to hold virtual meetings during a public health emergency.

Britt said the Zoom broadcast and overflow room for the large in-person crowd was “an appropriate approach to public meetings with a public health emergency in place,” technical issues notwithstanding.

Koger-Gustafson asserted she and others couldn't hear the proceedings in the overflow area, where the public could watch the meeting on a monitor.

The board's mask requirement for attendees also did not violate the Open Door Law, Britt said.

“Generally, a mask worn over the nose and mouth will not impede a person's ability to observe and record and is not a barrier to access,” he wrote. “Conversely, if the board required attendees to wear blindfolds and noise-canceling headphones or prohibited recording devices at public meetings, our conclusion would change.”

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