Pandemic altering public meetings

Colton-Pierrepont Central School Superintendent James Nee discusses the district’s reopening plan during a virtual town hall meeting in August. Provided photo

Among a grid of faces, a silent talking head is interrupted: “You’re muted.”

Streamed live online or posted as video conference links, public meetings look and sound different from pre-pandemic town hall and school cafeteria gatherings. The global and ongoing COVID-19 health crisis has ushered virtual meetings to the fore of government operations, inviting public participation through screens and chat boxes.

In the year since the first wave of the pandemic, and like people around the world, public meetings have undergone a sort of existential crisis: What exactly constitutes an open, public meeting?

In the tri-county region, Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence County public officials have logged onto Zoom Video Communications, YouTube, Facebook, Google Meet and Cisco Webex — to name a few — to do the public’s business.

With two postponed virtual meetings, technical obstacles and disputing councilors, the city of Ogdensburg teems with analytic possibility.

Last spring, Ogdensburg City Council used a free version of the GoToMeeting video conference platform with a user limit of 150. Before an April 30 council meeting, the video conference had reached its limit before City Clerk Cathy A. Jock had logged on. Less than two weeks later and after an upgraded GoToMeeting account had been secured, more than 1,000 people tried to virtually attend a May 11 meeting, ultimately canceled by technical facilitator Ms. Jock.

The city upgraded its account to 1,000 participants in time for a May 6 meeting, for which roughly 800 people registered to attend, Ms. Jock previously said. But when the May 11 meeting exceeded virtual capacity, councilors argued over their obligation to host the public in a larger virtual venue.

Deputy Mayor John A. Rishe and Councilor Steven M. Fisher urged Mayor Jeffrey M. Skelly to open the meeting, Mr. Rishe asserting that if the meeting were at City Hall and capacity was exceeded, people would be shut out and the meeting held anyway. Mr. Rishe called for a vote to decide whether the meeting should proceed.

“You can’t vote on it, councilor, without opening the meeting,” Ms. Jock said.

Under state law, public business — including votes — cannot be conducted without a meeting first being officially called to order.

“If you exceeded the room capacity here at City Hall,” Ms. Jock said, “the meeting would have to be postponed and moved to a location that could accommodate those that wish to attend.”

“That’s not true,” Mr. Rishe said. “That’s not true at all.”

But it is true.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Executive Order 202.1 spells out emergency exceptions and modifications to state laws and regulations, including Article 7 of Public Officers Law — Open Meetings Law. The pandemic order permits telephone meetings and exclusively virtual meetings by video conference, but the foundational elements of the law remain unchanged.

For example, Open Meetings Law requires public bodies to make “all reasonable efforts to ensure that meetings are held in an appropriate facility which can adequately accommodate members of the public who wish to attend such meetings.”

If video conferencing is used, even absent an emergency executive order, the law also requires a public body to “provide an opportunity for the public to attend, listen and observe at any site at which a member participates.”

Ms. Jock, who declined to be interviewed for this story, shut down the May 11 meeting despite pushback from Mr. Rishe and Mr. Fisher.

“The fact that we have exceeded the registration capacity for this meeting,” the longtime clerk and former paralegal said last year, “confirms to me that people are being denied access.”

Let the sun shine

Through the New York Department of State, an 11-member Committee on Open Government oversees three sunshine laws — Open Meetings, Freedom of Information and Personal Privacy Protection — all outlined by Public Officers Law.

State sunshine laws vary, but generally detail the public’s right to know how government works, how and when decisions are made and who has made them.

Accessible broadcast when possible and maintenance of meeting records are expected from public bodies, committees, school boards and public corporations — “any entity, for which a quorum is required in order to conduct public business.”

A quorum is established, according to the committee, when a body’s majority is present, regardless of any vacancies or absences. For a five-member village board, for example, when three members meet to conduct or discuss public business, a quorum is established. For a seven-member city council, a quorum is always four.

March 7 will mark a full year of Executive Order 202, issued as an initial disaster emergency declaration in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Six days earlier on March 1, the first novel coronavirus infection was confirmed in New York. Ten months later, the state has recorded nearly 1.2 million positive cases and 40,000 deaths, contributing to the nation’s 23 million cases and more than 380,000 deaths — and counting.

Several extensions and dozens of legal expansions later, Executive Order 202, now 202.90, temporarily suspends or modifies laws and regulations that would “prevent, hinder or delay” coping with the disaster emergency or would be “necessary to assist or aid in coping with such disaster.”

The order is currently extended through Jan. 29, and the modification of Open Meetings Law allows meetings to exclusively take place virtually “provided that the public has the ability to view or listen to such proceeding and that such meetings are recorded and later transcribed.”

Though public bodies may continue to physically gather, the Open Meetings Law modification overlaps with several other components of Executive Order 202, including a mask mandate for anyone over age 2, not socially distanced and “able to medically tolerate a face-covering.”

The Committee on Open Government’s Executive Director Shoshanah V. Bewlay has rendered advisory opinions about continuing in-person meetings, writing in August that public bodies wanting to offer in-person options must still comply with masking and capacity orders.

Watertown City Council has opted to continue live streaming meetings on Vimeo, a practice the city has maintained for the last several years. The public was initially barred from attending council meetings in person last spring, while council members have met in person throughout the pandemic.

Watertown Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith said he and city councilors felt comfortable meeting together because of the size of their group — five people. With the city clerk, manager and attorney, a total of eight officials meet during a typical council meeting.

By June, the public was allowed back into council chambers, masks and social distancing required.

View counts on the city’s videos indicate interest in meetings has waxed and waned. The streamed Aug. 17 council meeting, when councilors discussed the closed Alteri pool at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds, has 1,312 views. Inside council chambers, members of the public spoke for nearly an hour.

The July 10 council meeting video has only 162 views. That day, councilors conducted routine business, accepted a donation and considered allowing alcohol consumption in parts of Whitewater Park.

“I think, overall, public participation has been about the same,” Mr. Smith said. “If there’s a hot-button issue, more people show up and talk. If there isn’t, maybe only the regulars show up.”

After the initial surge in COVID-19 cases subsided last summer, limited in-person meetings also resumed in Ogdensburg. At summer and fall meetings, capacity inside Ogdensburg City Council chambers was cut to about 30, with members of the public ushered into and out of City Hall during public comment periods.

Now, Ogdensburg’s doors are locked, and in-person participation by councilors is split.

The Jefferson and Lewis County boards of legislators already had the technological framework to host virtual meetings, as the two boards have streamed live video of legislative sessions for years.

The St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators streamed a live meeting of its finance committee on YouTube for the first time March 30. St. Lawrence County lawmakers have since consistently streamed full board and committee meetings, with some officials present in the legislative board room in Canton, and others participating through Zoom.

Can you hear me now?

New standard meeting methods bring new challenges — hacked Zoom rooms, broadband requirements and technical difficulties.

During municipal meetings over the last 10 months, including in Canton and Massena, users have entered Zoom meeting rooms to spew racial slurs and display pornography. Swastikas and photos of the World Trade Center on 9/11 have been posted by hackers before being removed by moderators during a handful of Canton municipal meetings.

The FBI issued a warning at the outset of 2020’s video conference surge, citing the hijacking of online Massachusetts high school classrooms with “hate images and threatening language.” Just this week, a nationally streamed memorial for the late civil rights activist and former Phoenix City Councilor Calvin C. Goode was interrupted by people shouting the N-word, the Arizona Republic reports.

Such interruptions, dubbed Zoombombings, have been more publicly noted, as Zoom and other similar platforms are hosting more users than ever. In April, Zoom reported an average 300 million daily meeting participants. Though not reflective of the total number of users per day — a user is counted multiple times for participating in multiple meetings — that daily participant count was up from 10 million in December 2019, according to the California-based company.

Participating in virtual meetings requires a stable internet connection, a longstanding concern from rural taxpayers and communities statewide. Even when a user’s internet connection is viable for an audio or video meeting, technical considerations are still present.

The Rensselaer Falls Board of Trustees has begun to routinely check microphones prior to opening Zoom meetings. After signing on to the board’s January Zoom room, village Mayor Michael S. Hammond asked every participant whether they could hear him.

Alexandria Town Supervisor Brent H. Sweet said he thinks remote access has made it easier for members of the public to participate, and in turn, has encouraged the town to be more responsive to public concern.

With video conference equipment installed and now regularly used, Mr. Sweet said the town plans to continue its YouTube live streams.

“I think it helps give the taxpayers another way to participate, or at least listen to what’s going on in the town government,” he said. “So we plan on keeping it intact and using it for every one of our meetings.”

Both the town and village of Canton have consistently used Zoom to conduct meetings, posting instructions for joining by phone and computer to the municipal website.

Canton’s joint communications and technology committee has discussed continuing to provide a virtual option to members of the public after pandemic orders are lifted. A webcam was purchased in the fall to test out live streaming.

“Finding the proper space to do it in is the issue for us,” Canton Mayor Michael E. Dalton said. “It’s a cozy space in the board room, but these days we don’t need cozy.”

Space for a television or other screen would allow Canton officials to see others present remotely, while both the screen and the physical meeting room are streamed to public viewers. The spatial and streaming logistics, Mr. Dalton said, are still being worked out.

“The pandemic has forced us to adjust how we do business,” he said. “As technology changes, and as we’re forced to make changes, it benefits everybody.”

St. Lawrence County Editor Tom Graser contributed to this report.

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