EDITORIAL: Online-only meetings get first tryout

Niskayuna residents can only "attend" tonight's meeting on middle school changes online

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

Remember the other day when we cautioned you to pay attention to government actions even in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak?

Well for residents of Niskayuna, tonight will be their first test.

The Niskayuna school district will host a public meeting this evening at 6 p.m. on proposed changes to the district’s middle school program and building configuration options.

What’s unusual about tonight’s meeting is that it will be the first time locally under new state coronavirus social-distancing protocols that residents won’t be allowed to attend the meeting in person. 

They’ll only will be able to watch online and comment through email.

As part of an executive order issued last Friday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo authorized government bodies to exclude the public from upcoming meetings, so long as boards made arrangements to broadcast the meeting through teleconferencing or other means.

This is a departure from the state Open Meetings Law, which requires government bodies to let citizens attend their meetings.

Tonight, we’ll get a taste of this new reality.

Residents who are interested in the subject — and the potential $55 million to $70 million impact on taxes — should make the effort to tune in.

To view the meeting, go to the district website, https://www.niskayunaschools.org/, and scroll down to the item under NEWS titled, “School Board meeting on configuration options rescheduled for Friday, March 20; Videoconference/livestream only.”

Residents who view the meeting won’t be able to address board members during the meeting, but will be able to send in emails to the district prior to the meeting at [email protected]

Allowing public comment is not required under the Open Meetings Law under normal circumstances, but boards usually allow a period of public comment at most meetings. 

This is one area where the public will have to adjust to the new teleconferencing format.

Residents also can view background information about the project on the website.

If you can’t access the website, you won’t be able to watch tonight. That’s an unavoidable downside to the no-attendance meetings that could be cured in the future by broadcasting meetings on TV or the radio.

The governor’s executive order requires government bodies to record such meetings and transcribe a record of it. We hope the district plans to post a video of the meeting on its website, as well as the public comments, and provide a written transcript as well.

In the past, we encouraged government boards to make a greater effort to live-stream or otherwise broadcast their meetings to reach more people who might not be able to attend meetings in person.

Let’s hope the adaptations made during this crisis become permanent when things return to normal.

In the meantime, we encourage Niskayuna residents to tune in tonight, watch the meeting and email your comments.

Government is not going to come to a grinding halt just because people are being encouraged to avoid contact with one another.  Citizens will have to keep up on developments on their own.

Don’t let this crisis prevent or discourage you from being an active citizen.

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