YOUR RIGHT TO KNOW: Governor allows boards to restrict public access to meetings

Cuomo's special orders related to coronavirus outbreak includes modification to Open Meetings Law

Categories: Opinion

As government keeps coming up with ways to separate us to stop the spread of coronavirus, one of the casualties is likely to be public attendance at government meetings.

Last week, we supported in an editorial  on Friday legislation proposed by downstate Sen. Brad Hoylman that would allow government bodies to hold their meetings online or through broadcast so that citizens, particularly senior citizens, wouldn’t be exposed to one another and potentially the coronavirus by attending meetings in purpose. The bill, which was written in consultation with the Committee on Open Government, included several safeguards to ensure that the public would be able to view meetings, that the suspension was temporary in that it only could take place during official states of emergency, and that citizens had the right to go to court should boards abuse the opportunity not to have people present to violate the Open Meetings Law.

On Friday, included in an executive order issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo related to the coronavirus outbreak, was a similar measure. Under the order, the governor authorized public bodies to hold meetings remotely by “conference call or similar service” … “provided that the public has the ability to view or listen to such proceeding and that such meetings are recorded and later transcribed.” The order runs through April 11.

The executive order isn’t as comprehensive as the proposed legislation, nor does it articulate any of the same protections contained in Sen. Hoylman’s bill. So it’s much more possible under these circumstances that governments could take advantage of the opportunity to exclude the public in order to operate in secret. We hope that doesn’t happen, but one can never know what the government will do when given the opportunity to be sneaky.

We’re prefer that the Legislature pass Sen. Hoylman’s bill. But given the abbreviated legislative session and the limited time lawmakers are giving themselves to pass a state budget and other more pressing legislation, I personally doubt they’re going to do pass it.

We’re all asked to make sacrifices in public emergencies like this. Let’s hope government transparency isn’t one of the casualties.

A reminder that this is Sunshine Week, the week that members of the media use to draw public attention to open government and the attempts by government officials to prevent the public from knowing what their government is doing. We know that you’ve got plenty of other things on your mind right now. But it’s important, particularly during this crisis, that we don’t let our Right to Know be taken away.

If you have any questions or concerns about the state Open Meetings Law, the state Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) or any government transparency issues, please email me any time at [email protected]

— Mark Mahoney, Editorial Page Editor

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