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Sep 28

September 28, 2020 TML Coronavirus Update #128

Posted on September 28, 2020 at 6:17 PM by TML Staff

Urgent Updates


Are there any updates on the use of Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) money for public health and safety payroll costs substantially dedicated to responding to the COVID-19 pandemic?


Yes. Updating our September 22nd email, the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) has posted its revised CRF reporting and recordkeeping guidance on the Treasury OIG webpage. See specifically Questions 63, 70, 71, and 72.


OIG’s new guidance returns back to letting governments presume that payroll expenses for public health and safety employees are for services that are “substantially dedicated” to mitigating or responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency, and therefore allows governmental entities to use CRF funds for those purposes unless the entity’s chief executive determines that specific circumstances indicate otherwise. Payroll costs presumed to be permissible include payroll that was accounted for in the FY2020 budget and incurred prior to December 31, 2020. While governmental recipients of CRF money must make certain financial records available to OIG upon request to generally support payroll reimbursement using CRF revenue, the reporting and recordkeeping requirements are not for the purpose of determining whether public health and safety payroll is “substantially dedicated” to mitigating the emergency.


The North Texas law firm of Carrington Coleman, which advises governmental entities on the use of CRF funds, prepared this memo going into more detail on the revised OIG guidance.


What recent steps have been taken regarding eviction protection?


On Friday, September 25, Governor Abbott announced the allocation of $171 million of federal CARES Act funding for rental assistance and the Texas Eviction Diversion Program. According to the press release, the funding will “allow the Supreme Court of Texas, the Office of Court Administration, and the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) to work in partnership with local governments and non-profits and the newly created Texas Eviction Diversion Program to help renters stay in their homes, catch up on missed rental payments, and avoid an eviction on their records.”


At the moment, there are few details on the process for renters to access these funds. However, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs has indicated that cities, counties, and nonprofits will manage the application process. The state expects funding to be available in late 2020 or early 2021. Some preliminary information on the Texas Eviction Diversion Program is available on the Texas Courts’ website.


Further Updates


May we still have our city council meetings in a fully remote setting?


Yes. In March 2020, the governor suspended various parts of the Open Meetings Act, as detailed in a letter to the Office of the Attorney General. Those suspensions are still in place. The suspension order permits meetings to occur in a fully remote setting, provided certain requirements are met.


The governor’s order reflects three overarching goals for remote meetings:


-offer the public, city employees, and members of the city council the opportunity to engage in self isolation or social distancing as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and the State of Texas;

-ensure the public is able to hear open deliberations by the city council; and

-allow the public to interact with the city council during any public comment period or to otherwise address the city council.


In attempting to meet these goals, TML has received frequent questions from city officials about: (1) how best to provide for public interaction with the city council; and (2) how to plan for and address technical problems.


How should a city allow the public to interact with the city council during a public comment period or otherwise address the city council during a remote meeting?


In tackling this issue, it is important to understand the details of the governor’s order. Typically, Government Code Section 551.007(b) requires your city council to allow each member of the public who desires to address the body regarding an item on an agenda to address the body regarding the item at the meeting before or during the body's consideration of the item. The governor’s order suspends this requirement, but requires that a city “offer alternative methods of communicating” with city officials. The governor’s order does not impact the city council’s ability to have reasonable rules to manage public comment.


A quick online search reveals myriad ways that governmental bodies allow for public interaction and comment during a remote meeting. For instance, some cities engage in the following practices:


-Provide a dedicated voicemail or email where the public may submit comments. These comments may be read or played aloud at the meeting, or simply provided to the city council for review prior to the meeting.

-Allow the public to address the city council by phone during the meeting. This is typically achieved by requiring an individual to provide a contact phone number prior to the meeting that can be used by the presiding officer to call the individual.

-Utilize videoconference software that offers a “moderator” function, giving the presiding officer the ability to unmute a registered speaker to deliver live comments.


A recent meeting notice of the Texas Commission of Licensing and Regulation exemplifies some of these practices.


The variety of methods used by cities to interact with the public during remote meetings is likely a function of both the assortment of technologies used to hold meetings and differing legal interpretations of the governor’s suspension order.


Each city should consult its own legal counsel in making a final decision about how best to address this issue.


How does our city council plan for and respond to technical problems that impact the public’s ability to hear or interact with the city council at a remote meeting?


Among other things, the governor’s order requires the notice of a remote meeting to include a toll-free dial-in number or a free-of-charge videoconference link that provides two-way communication for members of the public to both hear the meeting and address the governmental body. Other specifics about the quality of video and audio have been suspended.


If a technical problem prohibits the public from hearing the meeting or interacting with the city council at the meeting, the city council may (depending on the circumstances) want to: (1) temporarily recess the meeting to address the problem; (2) redirect the public to an alternative means of hearing the meeting and/or interacting with the city council; (3) adjourn and reconvene the following regular business day; or (4) cancel the meeting altogether.


It may be advisable to include relevant details about what the public should do in case of a technical problem in the meeting notice itself. Each city should consult its own legal counsel in making a final decision about how best to address this issue.


Where can I find additional information about meetings?


You will find a compilation of TML’s daily COVID-19 updates on the subject of meetings here.


You may contact the attorney general’s office with questions about the interpretation of the governor’s suspension order by telephone at (888) 672-6787 or via email at