EDITORIAL: Public has a right to attend meetings in person

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Tens of thousands of people are allowed to crowd into concert venues, sporting events and beaches, parks and political rallies.

There were more than 45,000 people at the Travers a week ago packed into the Saratoga Race Course grounds.

The state fair went on as scheduled.

This week, tens of thousands of children, many unvaccinated, will be crammed into school buses and classrooms.

Walk into any store or bar or restaurant or casino or church service, and if you see more than a handful of the people wearing masks and flashing their vaccination cards, you’re in unique company.

Potential COVID superspreader events are everywhere you look. And few venues or businesses are enforcing even basic precautions against the spread of the more virulent strain of a virus that only recently crippled the state and national economy for more than a year.

Yet when Gov. Kathy Hochul decided to convene a special “extraordinary” session of the Legislature last week to address the state’s most pressing problems, she and lawmakers decided that public attendance at government meetings, of all things, needed special action to help reduce the spread of the virus.

Under legislation approved last week by lawmakers and signed by the governor, government bodies now have the option to hold their public meetings virtually, with no in-person attendance, until Jan. 15.

The change essentially reinstitutes an executive order imposed by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the height of the pandemic.

Videoconferencing of meetings can be an effective complement to in-person meetings, allowing people to observe and participate virtually from the convenience of their homes when they can’t attend in person.

But public participation in these types of settings is very limited, and these virtual meetings are not an adequate substitute for the citizens and their representatives being in the same room with one another.

To allow virtual meetings exclusively allows those government officials to be less accountable, and invites secrecy and exclusion.

That makes Hochul’s decision to target the Open Meetings Law for restrictive action — while allowing other activities with greater potential to spread the virus to go on unabated — even more nefarious and dangerous.

Our concern for this action goes beyond the change itself. The way it was done is also disturbing.

The proposed changes were not promoted widely and in detail. The governor’s office did not contact either good-government groups or representatives of New York newspaper publishers to get their input on the proposal, a sign that the governor’s office knew the kind of negative reception the proposal would get.

There was no public discussion or debate. And the changes were linked to legislation that extended the state’s eviction moratorium.

Plus, given that large portions of the state still lacks adequate broadband service — despite inaccurate claims from the past governor’s office about the extent of coverage — many people in rural areas will be shut out of public meetings simply because they can’t view them online.

Finally, this drastic move was unnecessary.

Many government boards already take precautions to reduce the spread of COVID or have the means to do so.

They limit public attendance in small venues and move meetings to larger rooms when larger crowds are anticipated.

They can set up overflow rooms when necessary, with video coverage.

They enforce social distancing and mask-wearing.

They offer both in-person and virtual attendance so people afraid of contracting COVID can still view and participate in meetings.

And many government officials, including several in our area, to their credit have responded that they will not accept the option to go all-virtual and will continue to hold both in-person and virtual meetings as long as they can do it safely.

But this legislation gives those boards that don’t value openness the cover they need to exclude the public.

The danger is that once one government board experiences the advantages of not having the public in attendance for their meetings, this so-called temporary legislation is on a slippery slope toward becoming permanent.

Open government is always under assault in this state.

The Cuomo administration (in which Hochul was a high-ranking official, don’t forget) was notoriously secretive, and the Hochul administration was already off to a shaky start when it comes to her promises of greater transparency.

Recent demands for more personal privacy and less disclosure of information from official sources such as law enforcement have made the public’s access to their government more tenuous than ever.

And as the public becomes more vocal and dissatisfied with government action over police brutality, voter access, COVID restrictions and other controversial issues, government boards will increasingly be seeking protection against vitriol from the citizens they represent.

But that’s not the way this whole democracy thing is supposed to work.

Our government officials are supposed to be answerable to the people they serve — the people whose tax dollars pay for the services these officials oversee.

It’s essential that the people have the opportunity to face their elected and appointed officials, ask questions of them directly, make demands and make their opinions heard.

Taking that access away from them will further erode the public’s right to observe and participate in their government, further erode the people’s trust in public institutions, and make government less responsive and less accountable.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

One Comment

Spot on op/ed. Somehow the word transparency to many elected officials including the governor, is just a politically correct word, and we can also include accessibility to that growing list. Public meetings as the editorial correctly pointed out, are far and away the least of the super spreader events that are given the green light without any special legislative sessions called, but to hold an in person meeting involving elected officials, the government is really looking out for our own good, yeah rightttt!

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