If we allowed good-government groups and the media to ensure government entities held nothing but open meetings, we would have the most transparent government in the world. Of course, that isn’t how the real world works.
This is the reason assemblymembers in the chamber’s Government Operations, Local Governments and Cities committees led a legislative hearing in Albany on Monday stressing the need for public meetings to take place in person after dependence on virtual sessions during the COVID-19 pandemic and examine the feasibility of changing the Open Meetings Law to allow localities to hold public meetings remotely.
That brings us to the testimony of Diane Kennedy, president of the New York News Publishers Association, and Judy Patrick, New York Press Association’s vice president for editorial development, who 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 often hindered by technical problems and lost connections, 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 told the Assembly panel. “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.”
Kennedy and Patrick also urged the Legislature to add a provision to the Open Meetings Law requiring all government entities to set aside time during meetings for orderly public comment periods.
You may be surprised to learn that a public comment period is not required under the current law. Early in the pandemic, the Coalition for Open Government reviewed the transparency of 21 government entities, 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 entities eliminated public comment 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.
The clear message sent by Patrick, Kennedy and other witnesses was that in-person meetings are the way to go, with a provision for remote meetings and a mandate for public comment periods. These moves will restore public faith in state and local governments and ensure the people who pay the salaries of elected officials get all the facts.