The majority of elected officials statewide are infrequently hearing from constituents during the COVID-19 pandemic and could improve government transparency, according to a state organization’s report released Tuesday.
Nonpartisan charitable organization New York Coalition For Open Government reviewed the transparency of 21 governmental bodies — 10 counties, 11 cities and one town — across the state in the month of April to see if local governments are representing New York’s largest localities.
The 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.
“Here we are in an emergency situation when it’s more important than ever to hear from the public,” coalition President Paul Wolf said. “That opportunity is being denied all across New York state.”
The Albany, Binghamton, Niagara Falls, Rochester and Syracuse city councils, the Monroe County Legislature and the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors made efforts to solicit live public comments by video, telephone or reading or summarizing resident comments during April meetings.
The coalition graded 21 localities to see if they complied with state Open Meetings Law requirements to live-stream meetings, post all meeting documents online beforehand and publish meeting audio or video afterward.
The organization also analyzed boards’ efforts for residents to see and hear public comments during online meetings. The Open Meetings Law does not mandate public comment periods.
The municipalities were chosen based on the state’s most populated cities and counties. The governmental bodies include Erie and Niagara county legislatures, the Buffalo Common Council and Niagara Falls City Council in Western New York; the Jefferson County Legislature and Watertown City Council in the North Country; and the Albany City Council and the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors in the Capital Region. In Albany County — the region’s largest county — legislators did not meet in April.
The state is preparing to gradually reopen its economy and COVID-19 infections are on the decline, but officials must be prepared to conduct meetings remotely until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves a virus vaccine, Wolf said.
“In the best of times, open government is a struggle — even before the COVID-19 crisis,” Wolf said. “My hope is one of the positive things out of this is people are videotaping and live streaming their meetings a lot of places weren’t doing it before. I hope this practice continues.
“Our preference is people have the opportunity to be heard live whether through video or telephone.”
Some officials may not know how to use technology, Wolf said.
“I had never used Zoom before, but I don’t think it’s that complicated,” he added of the popular video conference calling app. “Hopefully with practice, they’ll get better at it.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency March 7 because of the COVID-19 outbreak — six days after New York’s first positive case. The executive order suspended the state’s Open Meetings Law requiring all government meetings be open to the public with given notice. The law also requires meeting documents be posted on a local government’s website before a meeting, which must be streamed in real-time and posted online soon afterward.
Governor’s office spokesman Jason Conwall said the order’s intent is to require public boards to ensure members of the public can view or listen to public meetings live.
“They have an obligation to provide remote, contemporaneous access,” state Committee on Open Government Assistant Director Kristin O’Neill said. “The public has to be able to listen or view while the meeting is occurring.”
“We did it based on population, so probably the bigger populous areas have greater technological capability,” Wolf said of the report. “I saw where smaller communities do have technology issues. I don’t have any particular recommendations other than, hopefully, they can try the best they can to figure it out.”
The coalition may conduct another report focusing on government transparency in more rural, less populated towns and counties.
“All we can do is shine a light on some of these things, maybe embarrass folks,” Wolf said. “Sometimes, that’s what you have to do to make things happen.”
In Columbia County, meetings are broadcast live, Columbia County Board of Supervisors Chairman Matt Murell said.
“Most of our meetings are streamed through YouTube and we advertise them,” Murell said. “Starting this month, we will be doing committee meetings again and they will all be streamed.”
Comments and questions can be posed, but not in real time, he said.
“We don’t have the ability to take questions, but people can email us and we will address the questions after the meeting is over,” Murell said, adding that questions and comments can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The board of supervisors has not had a public hearing since the state’s shut-down order because there have been no issues requiring a public hearing, he said.
In Hudson, Mayor Kamal Johnson said meetings are broadcast on a local radio station.
“The essential meetings have all been taking place. They are broadcast live through WGXC, 90.7 on the local radio station,” Johnson said. “They are also on Zoom as well. Comment is taken through email, and we added a version where people can participate at the end of the meeting. I have had a few virtual town halls and people were able to submit comments and questions beforehand, as well as in the chat box during the meeting.”
The Common Council members have been working to make the process easier for the public, he added.
“The council has been fine-tuning things to make participation easier,” Johnson said. “It’s been a process, getting used to the technology. We are going to keep fine-tuning it until we come up with something that makes the public happy and so they can contribute and be a part of the political process.”
In Greene County, the Legislature uses Zoom to air its meetings on YouTube, Greene County Legislature Chairman Patrick Linger, R-New Baltimore, said.
Enabling the public to take part in meetings has been challenging, though, Linger said.
“The hardest part to accomplish is having the public participate,” Linger said. “We are posting agendas online a week before so if they have questions, they can email a legislator before the meeting so they can answer them during the meeting.”
The Legislature has not had a public hearing since the shut-down orders were enacted, Linger said, but one hearing from early March was cancelled and will be rescheduled at a later date.
The Catskill Village Board has been using a video conferencing app, combined with texting, to enable the public to view and participate in meetings, Village President Vincent Seeley said.
“In one of our planning board public hearings, we had 60 participants from the public,” Seeley said. “We hold the meeting, and we give out two cell numbers where people can text questions. At the end of the meeting we open up the line and answer questions. So we use the conference call but also text messages as a conduit for people to ask questions.”
The system has been working so well, Seeley said the board will continue using it even after gatherings are allowed, in conjunction with the in-person meeting.
“For me, the texting and questions ahead of time are good for people who are reluctant to speak during a meeting,” Seeley said. “This new meeting medium allows more people to be heard because they may feel more comfortable not speaking in front of a crowd.”