The coronavirus might keep you from attending a concert or sporting event, but it shouldn’t interfere with your ability to know what your government is doing.
In the spirit of social distancing, legislation being introduced today by New York City state Sen. Brad Hoylman would ensure that citizens could still have access to government meetings, by authorizing government boards to hold meetings via teleconference in emergency situations without the public being physically present.
It’s a sharp departure from the norm. But these are not normal times.
Given the need to prevent the spread of the virus by limiting exposure through public gatherings, this is a necessary piece of legislation to ensure the public has continued access to government proceedings.
Senior citizens are especially vulnerable to coronavirus. They also happen to be among those who regularly attend government meetings.
This bill will essentially allow them to “attend” meetings without subjecting themselves to the virus.
Under the bill, the government could only take such an action in the event of a declared state of emergency, such as in the aftermath of a hurricane or snowstorm, or a public health emergency like the current pandemic.
Given that both New York City and New York state are under such an emergency, the bill would apply to the current situation.
Boards would have to justify the holding of teleconference meetings by detailing the threat to the public welfare, and they would have to spell out exactly how members of the public could view the meetings.
There are number of safeguards to ensure that governments couldn’t abuse the situation in order to shut the public out.
Meetings would have to be announced with proper disclosure, as usual, and the boards would have to follow the regulations of the Open Meetings Law to the extent possible, as if the public were physically present.
The bill also allows people to go to court to challenge any improper meetings.
The Open Meetings Law does not require boards to allow public comment at meetings.
But boards under this bill would have to declare how they would make accommodations for public comment for public hearings and other such meetings.
Another protection is that the bill will sunset in 2022, which will allow legislators time to evaluate compliance and effectiveness.
While some government bodies and school boards already broadcast their meetings, many do not. Given advances in technology and the ease at which meetings can be uploaded to websites, all government bodies should have this capability by now.
With the public being unable to attend meetings in person because of an emergency like the coronavirus, it’s even more imperative that government bodies quickly make this service available to their citizens.
Given the current threat to our health, this legislation is needed now more than ever.