In an article published today, the AJC stated (without citation or authority) that public hearings by local governments had to be held in person. That is flatly incorrect.
Georgia cities, including Brookhaven, have been conducting public hearings via online platforms throughout the COVID-19 crisis and will continue to do so. The Open Meetings Act, O.C.G.A. § 51-14-1et seq., allows meetings to be by phone or online during a state of emergency. Brookhaven’s City Council felt it was imperative that the public’s business continue to the greatest extent possible while keeping people safe and well during the crisis.
Nothing in state law requires that public hearings be in person. While there is a requirement that such hearings be “meaningful”, Hoechstetter v. Pickens County, 303 Ga. 786 (2018), we recommend that Georgia cities accomplish that by allowing 5 ways to participate in the policy question under consideration. Residents and interested parties may: (1) email the Mayor and Council (or the Board of Appeals or Planning Commission, as the case may be) prior to the meeting to express their opinions and those emails are included in the Public Hearing record by staff; (2) comments may be made during the live stream of the meeting on Facebook (or similar widely accessible social media platform) and those comments are read during the meeting; (3) citizens, residents, and interested parties may comment in the “chat” function of the Zoom (or similar) platform during the public hearing; (4) citizens, residents, and interested parties may indicate their desire to orally comment on the matter and they will be added to the “panelist” portion of the Zoom meeting to express their concerns and opinions; (5) citizens, residents, and interested parties without access to a computer may call in to the Zoom meeting and participate. For Zoning decisions, where the Planning Commission holds a public hearing but votes only in an advisory role, the same 5 opportunities to participate exist and all comments for the matter are included in the public record and forwarded to Council for its consideration and final consideration.
The Zoning Procedures Law requires Cities to adopt policies for conducting zoning hearings. Brookhaven did that both in its original zoning code adopted in 2013 and in the Zoning Rewrite adopted in 2018. Brookhaven Code of Ordinances § 27-1002. Nothing in that ordinance mandates that public participation be in person, only that the public be allowed to speak, § 27-1002(3), which the City has provided multiple avenues for the public to do.
The risks of in-person public hearings have been brought home recently by the experience in a neighboring city to Brookhaven where a meeting participant was asymptomatic at the time of the meeting but was diagnosed 2 days later, causing concern about exposure to everyone in the room, including the entire city council. Other cities and counties have decided to postpone public hearings until the crisis has abated. The measures, procedures, and policies adopted by the Mayor and Council in Brookhaven in this extraordinary time have allowed the City to continue to function, comply with the spirit and letter of the law, and safeguarded the health, safety, and rights of citizens, residents, and interested parties.