(The Center Square) — Legislation impacting public records and meetings moved through the House Governmental Affairs Committee this week.

Committee members voted unanimously Tuesday to approve Senate Bill 201, sponsored by Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, to establish rules for virtual public meetings. The bill cleared the Senate with a vote of 35-0 in April.

Hewitt, a candidate for governor, explained the legislation was spawned from benefits of video conferencing revealed during the pandemic, including increased government transparency, increased participation and reduced travel costs, as well as more opportunities for disabled citizens to take part.

“This bill is providing opportunity for some statewide boards to meet remotely some of the time,” Hewitt said.

The bill requires local public bodies to always meet in person, while allowing boards that are “beyond a regional scope” to hold meetings remotely.

The bill includes some exceptions requiring in-person meetings for certain statewide boards with far-reaching spending and policy powers, including the legislature, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Board of Regents, Board of Ethics, the State Civil Service Commission, the board for Louisiana Citizens insurance, the Board of Commerce and Industry, and the Board of Supervisors for state universities.

SB 201 also provides an exception for statewide bodies dealing with disability issues to always meet remotely, and stipulates disabled citizens “shall be given an opportunity to participate in a meeting via electronic means at both the local and statewide meetings,” either as a board member or citizen.

Other provisions of the bill spell out rules boards must follow, including offering an anchor location for the public to attend in person, rules for public participation, recording and archiving of meetings, posting meeting materials online in real time, notification requirements, and required roll call votes.

The House Governmental Affairs Committee also approved Senate Bill 213, sponsored by Sen. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, to require custodians of public records that establish and collect fees for public records to post a “reasonable” fee schedule that’s accessible to the public.

Duplessis said the bill builds on prior legislation that allowed custodians to charge fees, ensuring the prior legislation is implemented appropriately. SB 213 passed the Senate in a unanimous vote earlier this month.

“It’s really just trying to create a little more transparency and fairness across the board,” he said. “We just want to make sure people are informed and that custodians of records have a fair and equitable fee structure when they charge requestors for certain public records.”