The postponement of a state Senate committee hearing Monday due to confusion over whether the state Open Meetings Law applied could turn out to be a positive development for your right to know.
Monday’s issue was created by the pandemic and the temporary suspension of the Open Meetings Law to allow government bodies to meet remotely with no members of the public in attendance.
When the state’s state of emergency ended on June 24, the full Open Meetings Law went back into effect.
Yet some government officials still want to participate in meetings remotely. Many have to travel several hours to attend meetings in Albany, so they instead would prefer to keep participating at home via Zoom.
But here’s the problem.
Section 103(c) of the Open Meetings Law requires that any public body holding a meeting by videoconference must provide an opportunity for the public to “attend, listen and observe at any site at which a member participates.”
Technically, under the law, if the board member is participating from home, the public must be allowed to attend the meeting at the board member’s home.
That’s ridiculous, of course. But it’s a real issue that must be addressed.
In-person meetings are still the best way for citizens to observe their government in action and to participate and ask questions.
It would be a disservice to the public if government bodies were allowed to hold all of their meetings remotely.
But the pandemic made remote public meetings more commonplace and convenient, both for officials and the public.
So some compromise is needed.
The easiest solution would be to leave the law in place and specifically require board members who wish to participate via Zoom to go to a public place where the public could attend — like their local library, a town hall or a school building.
That would eliminate the ability of public officials to participate in meetings in their pajama bottoms. But at least it would allow them to avoid long, inconvenient travel. And it would ensure the public could observe them in person.
For the long-term, the Legislature should amend the Open Meetings Law to require that meetings could be held remotely, as long as a quorum of the board met in person in a public place.
They could also stipulate that each member of a board must attend a certain percentage of meetings per year in person, say 75%, at the main meeting site. That way, officials couldn’t always avoid personal contact with their constituents.
Whatever they come up with, the final decision must ensure that the public retains full access to their government officials and the meetings they hold.
A board member’s convenience should never take precedence over the public’s right to know.