Ever since Andrew Cuomo announced that he would resign as governor of New York amidst allegations of varied types of misconduct, Kathy Hochul has emphasized that she will run a very different type of administration than Cuomo did. According to Gov. Hochul, transparency and ethics will be important priorities for her administration. The new governor’s recent decision to correct the record regarding the full number of COVID-19 deaths in New York was an encouraging sign. Recent developments, however, raise questions about whether the differences between the Cuomo administration and the Hochul administration are substantive or merely stylistic.
Gov. Kathy Hochul called the legislature to Albany on September 1, 2021 for an extraordinary session. Gov. Hochul called upon the legislature to expand the state’s COVID-19-related moratorium on evictions, to expand the use of virtual meetings by various government entities, and to confirm two appointees that will help implement the state’s recreational marijuana law. The legislature passed both measures, and the two marijuana-related appointees were confirmed by the State Senate. However, there are concerns about both the substance of the Governor’s policies and the process by which they were implemented.
Bill S.50001-Kavanaugh/A.40001-Rules (Dinowitz) temporarily amended the Open Meetings Law to allow state and local governments, (but not the state legislature) to hold online-only meetings due to COVID-19. This provision is scheduled to expire on January 15, 2022. While holding government meetings online facilitates social distancing, and while it also allows New Yorkers to view meetings that they might not be available to attend in person, Politico points out that it prevents persons without internet access from viewing or participating in those meetings at all.
Furthermore, Politico adds that the Governor “didn’t announce that open meetings would be on the agenda until the night before the bill was considered. The actual bill language wasn’t introduced until 2 p.m. on Wednesday, two hours after the special session began and shortly before votes began.” Because the open meetings language was included in a larger bill extending the eviction moratorium, discussion of the language was cut short.
At New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, we are disappointed that Gov. Hochul has taken much of the state back to the Cuomo era of closed-door meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote meetings limit voters’ opportunities for opposition activity and for one-on-one interaction with elected officials. Surely, public officials can practice the same safety protocols at a public meeting that students will be participating in for eight hours a day, five days a week. At this stage of the pandemic, Albany elects should maintain standard operating procedure with in-person public meetings that are broadcast live on video for the benefit of those who cannot participate on an in-person basis. We are equally disappointed at Gov. Hochul’s willingness to spring a controversial bill on the legislature without giving the members sufficient time to review it.