The New York Coalition For Open Government, a not-for-profit group promoting transparency in local government, expressed dissatisfaction this week with an extension of rules that first came about during the pandemic that allowed local governments to hold meetings virtually.
In a release following a September 1 session of the State Legislature called by Governor Kathy Hochul to consider a number of issues, including the Open Meetings Law, Paul Wolf, executive director of the coalition, called the session and the extension both “terrible.”
The extension allows for remote meetings to continue, as they had throughout the pandemic by executive order. Remote meetings must be live streamed and transcribed afterwards, with transcriptions available to the public.
According to the open meetings advocate, “The legislation is missing many important features.” Ideal legislation would allow for hybrid meetings featuring both in-person attendance and the ability to watch a livestream remotely. It would have a way for the public to comment in person or remotely and require meeting videos to be posted online after a meeting.
Locally most school and village boards, and the town boards in East Hampton and Southampton, post videos of their meetings in a timely fashion. Many have continued to livestream as well, through their local public access television stations, on their websites, or on YouTube. The school board in Westhampton Beach has been a holdout in terms of providing easy remote access; it doesn’t livestream meetings and its most recent posted video is from June, with two additional meetings held since. Transcription availability for most local bodies tends to lag.
“Our point is that we have been operating for quite some time now using remote meetings,” Mr. Wolf commented via email. “The law should mandate that meeting videos be posted online afterwards; that public comments be accepted remotely, which many places have just eliminated, that meeting minutes or a transcript be mandated to be posted online, which is not the case now.
“The legislature has had a long time to address these issues and has not done so,” he added.
The extension of the provisions of the now-expired emergency order will reduce the need for congregation at public meetings while the delta variant is prevalent, while ensuring public business can continue, the governor explained in a release.
“Let’s be clear — the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and I’ve heard from government officials across the state who are concerned about the inability of their constituents to access public meetings virtually,” Governor Hochul said in the statement. “This commonsense legislation extends a privilege that not only helps New Yorkers participate safely in the political process, but also increases New Yorkers’ access to their government by allowing for more options to view public meetings. This law will continue to bolster the open and transparent style of government that we’re committed to maintaining in the Empire State.”
Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. has been lobbying for legislation to allow remote meetings to continue, and emphasized that last week’s bill authorizes public bodies to conduct meetings remotely until January 15, 2022.
“COVID-19 has changed our lives and how we go about day-to-day business. What started out as a necessity evolved for many public bodies into a convenience. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is not over yet. We are battling with the surge of the delta variant and our laws must adapt to our current state of affairs,” he said.
“This bill is temporary,” the lawmaker emphasized in response to the coalition’s criticism, which he said was “somewhat unfair.” While most local boards have continued to offer remote access, the order requiring it expired in June. For the next three-and-a-half months, he said, the Legislature will debate and consider more permanent revisions.
There’s a need to balance the advantages of technology with the advantages of in-person interaction, he pointed out. While livestreamed meetings may it easier, on a certain level, for the public to participate, he made clear, “the public has a right to confront their elected officials and see them in person.”
“If I thought the extension of the executive order was permanent, I would share the criticism,” Mr. Thiele said. He anticipates public hearings on revisions to the Open Meetings Law this fall, and hopes for an adoption early in 2022.
The lawmaker said that in the interim, he’d heard from community members and, “They don’t want to go to these small meeting rooms with the numbers spiking the way that they are.”
On Friday, September 3, East Hampton town and village officials decided to return to all-virtual meetings and eschew public gatherings in light of another increase in COVID-19 infections.
Mr. Thiele reported that the Assembly met in person on Wednesday, September 1, and “already on Friday, we have two members who have COVID.”
“We’re going to have public hearings on the Open Meetings Law this fall,” he said.
There’s already a consensus that people want to give the public the chance to participate remotely, to allow new technology to be utilized so the public has a greater opportunity to participate. There’s not a lot of controversy about allowing the public to participate remotely, he said.
“Where I see the hearing focusing,” he said, “and where the executive order falls short, is you can’t have public bodies … you can’t have the members always meeting remotely where the public doesn’t have access to them. We’re going to try to get the best of this technology without allowing people to hide.”
It makes more sense to be able to tell towns and villages they can keep doing what they have been doing rather than impose a brand new set of rules only to revise them again next winter, Mr. Thiele reasoned, as the Legislature expects to draft more permanent and comprehensive Open Meetings Law provisions to adopt in 2022.
For now, meetings can be held either over a video service such as Zoom or by phone. There is no change to the requirement that public bodies must provide notice to constituents that a meeting is taking place, and they are required to inform constituents how to access the public meeting virtually.
On March 12, 2020, Executive Order 202.1 suspended the portion of New York State law requiring meetings to take place in person, and authorized public meetings to be held virtually. On June 25, 2021, the state of emergency ended, removing the provision suspending the law.