EDITORIAL: Time for a full return to in-person government meetings

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If you go into stores, other businesses and government offices, you’ll see most people have given up wearing masks as the pandemic winds down (for now).

School kids no longer are required to wear them, even though many are ineligible for vaccines or have not yet gotten vaccinated.

Sports teams and concert promoters have lifted mask and vaccine requirements for their crowded events and basically left responsibility for social distancing to their customers.

Restrictions have virtually all been lifted.

Yet Gov. Kathy Hochul continues to allow local government boards to hold their public meetings remotely instead of requiring them to return to hosting meetings in person.

Why is it that every other institution can flout COVID precautions, but government boards — which make important decisions that affect everyone’s lives at the grassroots level — are still not required to hold public meetings in person?

As the sun sets on another Sunshine Week this year, the governor and Legislature either need to provide a legitimate reason for this narrow exclusion or remove the option that municipal boards and school boards have to either meet in person or meet remotely.

We’ve been a fan of offering citizens the option of attending public meetings in person or viewing meetings remotely via TV or the internet.

Remote meetings, which became necessary and commonplace during the pandemic, opened government to more people and allowed those who wished to watch from the safety and convenience of their homes to do so.

The pandemic actually forced governments to reach out to more people, thereby promoting transparency.

But nothing can replace the personal interaction and participation of a meeting in which government officials are in the same room as their constituents, being forced to see their faces, hear their voices and address their concerns in person.

No amount of remote questions can replace citizens marching up to the microphone and challenging their officials as they sit before them.

Once a meeting is over online, it’s over. But at an in-person meeting, citizens can challenge closed-door executive sessions that are called after the regular meeting is over and can corner their public officials afterward.

Allowing government officials to hide behind the safety of a camera undermines the democratic process and deprives citizens of their right to address those who represent them.

The governor is expected to extend her directive allowing government boards the option of meeting remotely or meeting in person, perhaps by another month.

If we can go back to normal everywhere else, we can go back to in-person public meetings right now. We don’t need to wait a month.

The city of Poughkeepsie isn’t waiting for the governor to act.

City officials announced Friday they would return to all in-person meetings starting Monday because of the decline of the pandemic.

State officials need to act with similar urgency.

Last week, a group of 15 leaders of organizations representing good-government groups, media organizations and others wrote a letter to Gov. Hochul, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie urging them to amend the Open Meetings Law to require both remote and in-person participation in public meetings.

The organizations — which included the New York News Publishers Association, Reinvent Albany, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the New York Coalition for Open Government, the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) and others — offered eight recommendations for hybrid meetings.

They want the state to require all state and local public bodies currently subject to the Open Meetings Law to provide free, unrestricted remote video and voice access to their public meetings, including telephone and web-based video conferencing applications.

The groups also recommend the state require either a majority of the body, or the presiding official or top deputy, to attend in person all public meetings of public bodies, but allow other members of the body to fully participate remotely, including being counted toward a quorum and voting.

Another recommendation is that the state require public bodies to post replayable recordings of their meetings online within one business day and retain them online for at least five years — giving residents an opportunity to view meetings shortly afterward if they missed them in real time, and to refer back to them in the future.

The recommendations take into account the challenges faced by some government bodies to offer remote meetings due to limitations on their existing websites, broadband capabilities and cost.

The group recommends a waiver of two or three years for localities that lack sufficient broadband access and urges the state to require the state Office of Information and Technology Services to offer low-cost applications and lift requirements that meetings be hosted on government-owned or -controlled servers.

These are common-sense, workable measures that restore the benefits to citizens of attending meetings in person and also open public meetings to citizens who are unable or unwilling to attend meetings in person.

The governor has made it clear that strict public gathering restrictions are no longer necessary.

She should extend that to the public’s right to know by requiring government boards to once again meet where the public has the best access to them.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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