ALBANY — Officials and good-government groups alike Monday stressed the need for public meetings to take place in person after dependence on virtual sessions during the COVID-19 pandemic as lawmakers weigh changing the state Open Meetings Law.

Assemblymembers in the chamber’s Governmental Operations, Local Governments and Cities committees led a legislative hearing in Albany on Monday to examine potentially changing the Open Meetings Law to allow localities to hold public meetings remotely.

“In-person meetings should be the way we proceed,” state Association of Counties Executive Director Stephen Acquario said to lawmakers Monday.

“I’m not going to ask you for that authority,” he added of the Legislature codifying permitting remote meetings into law.

Lawmakers voted last month to temporarily amend the Open Meetings Law and allow public bodies to hold municipal meetings via telephone or video conference through Jan. 15, 2022, provided meetings are recorded and later transcribed for the public. The measure was passed as part of an omnibus bill extending the statewide eviction moratorium through the same date.

“I may not ask you to renew it in January 2022,” Acquario said. “Counties are not asking to convert to remote operations. It’s always best to be in person and the public being able to attend in person.”

Lawmakers could vote to change the law and allow remote meetings permanently when session resumes in January, or the temporary statute could be extended, depending on COVID-19 infection and transmission rates in the months ahead.

Diane Kennedy, president of the New York News Publishers Association, and Judy Patrick, New York Press Association’s vice president for editorial development, recommended the Legislature adopt a hybrid law before the current rule sunsets Jan. 15 to allow people to attend meetings both in-person and remotely.

Virtual attendance is also often hindered by technical difficulties and lost connection, people speaking with their microphone muted — sometimes intentionally by officials.

“There are people who are immunocompromised for whom leaving the house, even with all safety protocols in place, would be too great,” Kennedy said. “We need to be sure that those people can participate in government and those people can view what their government does, so I think the hybrid law would be the way to go.”

Remote meetings allow for increased public participation depending on a resident’s access to high-speed internet, technology or their digital literacy.

Remote meetings have also allowed some officials to evade facing members of the public or reporters with questions about a controversial topic.

“Gov. Hochul is committed to ensuring accessibility, transparency and accountability in government, and we are meeting with advocates and local governments to determine how best to continue increasing participation and openness in the political process post-pandemic,” Hochul’s Press Secretary Hazel Crampton-Hays said in a statement Monday.

Kennedy and Patrick also urged the Legislature to add a provision in the Open Meetings Law to require all public bodies have an orderly public comment period during a meeting. A public comment period is not required under the current law.

Members of the state Coalition for Open Government also voiced support for mandated public comments and a hybrid law, or allowing the public to participate remotely as long as a meeting remains open for in-person attendance.

During the pandemic, some municipalities have accepted public comments from in-person attendees, but did not accept virtual comments or questions.

“...The clear message was, we take public comments as mandated by law and if we don’t have to, we’re not interested in taking public comments,” coalition President Paul Wolf said. “Because we’re clearly able to do it — we did it for a public hearing, but we’re not going to do it for any agenda in general. And I think that’s just a terrible way to conduct public business.”

Early in the pandemic, the coalition reviewed the transparency of 21 governmental bodies, or 10 counties, 11 cities and one town in spring 2020.

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.

Wolf also stressed changing the Open Meetings Law to mandate public bodies post meeting minutes online. The current law only requires minutes be available to the public upon request within 14 days.

Representatives from the state Committee on Open Government were not among the dozens of witnesses spread over 10 panels through Monday’s hearing.

State Association of Counties counsel Pat Cummings and Mikale Billard with the state Association of Clerks of County Legislative Boards asked lawmakers for increased state funding for localities in the 2022-23 state budget, especially for smaller counties and rural communities, so they can acquire the proper camera and technological equipment to hold fair virtual public meetings.

“Rural areas with support is minimal,” Cummings said. “If it’s going to be about public access, the smaller counties should have more proportional costs. A camera costs the same whether in Suffolk County or Yates County.”

The law’s requirement for municipalities to have word-for-word transcriptions of remote meetings is a duplicate of the required recordings, and adds to the cost and stress on local governments, Billard said.

B also need software to protect against hackers and cyberattacks during a municipal event.

Brian Fessler, the director of government relations with the state School Board Association, asked lawmakers for New York school districts to have the option to hold meetings virtually when necessary, such as in the case of inclement weather, and change the law so public officials and school board members do not have to disclose their physical location to participate.

Committee on Open Government Executive Director Shoshanah Bewlay submitted testimony to Assembly staff last week, but intentionally did not testify Monday, she said, as all committee members weigh a formal recommendation on the pandemic’s impact on the Open Meetings Law and remote sessions.

“I did not appear today at the hearing because the committee speaks as a body not through a representative and the body has not yet finalized its recommendations concerning this issue,” Bewlay said Monday. “Accordingly, I submitted factual information to support the legislature‘s goal of determining what amendments would be required to the open meetings law. The committee will speak as a body on Dec. 15, 2021, when it submits its annual report to the governor and the Legislature.”

The committee will meet to discuss its recommendations at its regular meeting next month.

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(2) comments

scottmyers

Greene County arrested me on January 17, 2019 for simply attending the monthly legislature meeting. Four years ago they started blocking email to @discovergreene.com. They don’t like my opposition to a new jail, which is unjustifiable. It’s a new $90 million debt, a 20% tax increase for 30 years! None of the contractors are Greene County companies. None if the $39 million loan’s $16 million interest stays in Greene County. They even farmed out the health care to a Pennsylvania company. Pathetic. For reference, Ulster built for 540 but has under 90 detainees. They will still pay for a huge jail. Albany and Columbia county’s situations are the same. Spend on root causes, like education and poverty, and we’re much better off.

Rory VanDeusen

S.O.S---There is a video of you being arrested. You failed to leave when ordered by Law Enforcement. You were harrassing people getting in their faces. No one feels sorry for you. Get a job and be a contributing citizen. Stop being a putz!

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