Open meeting change resisted

The Jefferson County Legislature met for the first time in person since November on March 30 in the county building on Arsenal Street in Watertown. Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times

ALBANY — Good-government groups came out in force to oppose temporary changes to the state Open Meetings Law, sounding the alarm about potential threats to governmental transparency and pressing officials to hold a public hearing while localities lean on remote meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawmakers voted in an extraordinary session called by Gov. Kathy Hochul on Wednesday to extend the eviction moratorium and temporarily amend the Open Meetings Law to allow officials in a public body to attend and vote at meetings remotely until Jan. 15. The change mirrors language in the 2020 executive order that suspended the Open Meetings Law and allowed local governments and public entities to conduct meetings remotely, or online, to protect against unnecessary spread of COVID-19.

Several good-government groups sent a letter Thursday to lawmakers requesting a public hearing on how the Open Meetings Law should be amended to reflect changes in society and benefits of technological advancements.

“When everything is remote, it is considerably more difficult for reporters and the public to voice their opinions, press officials on issues or get statements on the record,” according to the letter. “New Yorkers should not have to choose between remote access and in-person public meetings. It’s possible to do both, and many public agencies have.”

Reinvent Albany, New York Coalition for Open Government, New York News Publishers Association, NY Public Interest Research Group, BetaNYC, Citizens Union, Common Cause New York, League of Women Voters of New York State, Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA and Center for the Independence of the Disabled, New York, sent the letter to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx; Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers; Sen. James Skoufis, D-Woodbury; and Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, D-Clarkstown; who each chair the Investigations and Government Operations Committee in their respective chambers.

The groups requested the hearing to take place before the start of the 2022 legislative session in January.

“Remote meetings are not a bad idea, but we shouldn’t be doing remote by itself,” New York Coalition for Open Government President Paul Wolf said Friday. “The numbers show many more people watch remote meetings than actually physically attended meetings in the past, but just doing remote meetings only is something we don’t agree with.”

Wolf and the good-government groups on the letter support a hybrid approach for governments to hold in-person and livestreamed meetings. Officials should be required to accept public comments from both in-person and remote attendees, Wolf said, and mandate posting the meeting recording online afterward.

“Our disappointment was that it seemed like a good opportunity to do more,” Wolf said. “The way the process was done was certainly not transparent.”

Digital meetings allow more people, including those with ambulatory disabilities, childcare responsibilities and incompatible work hours, to participate in government processes, but it led to a sharp reduction in officials, according to a report from the coalition.

In the early days of the pandemic, the coalition reviewed the transparency of 21 governmental bodies, or 10 counties, 11 cities and one town.

The May 2020 report showed 14 of 21, or 67%, of the reviewed government bodies eliminated hearing from the public during their April meetings, which were held digitally because of the coronavirus.

Seven out of the 21 encouraged residents to make comments via telephone, voicemails, video calls or recordings or emails.

“During the pandemic, many places stopped taking public comments,” Wolf said. “New York’s law is very weak in that it does not mandate that public bodies have to hear public comments, but with the technology, it’s not that hard.”

Wednesday’s legislation was not released until nearly two hours after session was scheduled to begin, leaving many lawmakers in the dark about its details — especially Republicans in the minority of both houses.

Assembly Leader Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, said Wednesday’s extraordinary session highlighted the dysfunction deeply embedded within the state’s government operations. He and other Republicans agreed the process kept representatives in the dark, and did not bode well for the new governor, who touted governmental fairness and transparency as a pillar of her administration in her inaugural address Aug. 24.

“In one of her first official acts, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed off on a measure that would suspend New York’s Open Meetings Law, a measure that provides a critical outlet for public participation in government,” Barclay said Friday.

“There is no shortage of irony that Albany’s method of modifying the Open Meetings Law was to advance the bill without public input, public review or any public participation whatsoever. For a governor who has boldly proclaimed her commitment to transparency from the day she was installed, hiding this measure from 20 million New Yorkers does not instill confidence.”

The state Association of Counties, the state Conference of Mayors and the Association of Towns — groups representing municipalities and localities statewide — voiced support to the Open Meetings Law changes.

“Wednesday’s session was an extraordinary session, and as the governor has said, transparency is a priority for the Hochul administration and we will continue to focus on that moving forward,” a spokesperson with the governor’s office said in a statement Friday. “The changes to the Open Meetings Law were made to help ensure that meetings continue to be conducted and conducted safely during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and to make sure that the public is able to participate easily and safely as well. The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and the option for in-person or virtual meetings ensures government can operate transparently and safely while making sure public business can continue.”

Representatives with Committee on Open Government would not comment on the legislation and the general impact of virtual meetings on government transparency, but said members of public bodies and New Yorkers contacted the committee more frequently during the COVID-19 pandemic about the changed procedures.

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