EDITORIAL: Ensure return to live, in-person public meetings

Boards can use online meetings to operate in secret
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Categories: Editorial, Opinion

Death. Taxes. And government trying to pull a fast one. The three certainties of life.

The danger of government taking action under the authority of an emergency— particularly the kind of action that allows government bodies to operate outside the direct supervision of the people they serve — is that boards will begin to exploit the opportunity.

Last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order that included, among other actions, modification of the Open Meetings Law to allow government boards to conduct their meetings online or via some other means of broadcast without the public being present.

The reason was to protect citizens from spreading the coronavirus.

We agreed that the state needed to take such action under these special circumstances.

But rather than a broad directive from the governor, we favored state legislation (A10177/S8116) that contained protections to ensure government transparency, including requiring boards justify the need to hold such meetings, a legal appeals process for citizens to challenge the decision to hold such meetings, and a sunset provision to ensure these types of meetings wouldn’t become permanent.

But the legislation was never passed, and the governor’s order is the rule. 

Our fear that giving government bodies the ability to hold such meetings out of public view would invite abuses came to life last week, when the Amsterdam school board held a meeting that it didn’t broadcast live, as required under the executive order.

Instead, the board decided just to record the meeting and post a tape of it the following day.

That’s not transparency.

The public should have been able to view the meeting in real time to ensure that what they were seeing was what was really happening. They should have been able to see all the board’s actions, including any comments made by board members and any attempts by the board to go into closed-door executive session.

By just showing residents a tape of the meeting after the fact, the board could have edited out portions, including actions or statements they didn’t want the public to see.

The opportunity to operate in secret is exactly why these types of meetings can’t be allowed to become permanent substitutes for live, in-person public meetings.

Had our reporter, Zach Matson, not challenged the Amsterdam board’s action, the board might have continued this practice and perhaps opened the door for other boards to do the same.

The coronavirus outbreak and our adaptation to technology will change many practices we’d come to accept as normal. Many more people, for instance, will be working from home instead of going to the office. Many services and practices we once conducted solely in person will be delivered remotely, including grocery shopping, medical care and voting.

Among the changes we should not accept, however, is departure from live government meetings that the people can attend in person. 

It’s fine if the government complement them with online broadcasts to make meetings more accessible and convenient.

But once we return to normal, live public meetings should resume.

The sooner this happens, the better it is for all citizens.
 

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