More than a year ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During that state of emergency, government bodies developed procedures for holding public meetings online. Because the state of emergency is now over, the provisions of the state’s open meetings law are now in effect once again. According to Politico, “‘[a] public body that uses videoconferencing to conduct its meetings shall provide an opportunity for the public to attend, listen and observe at any site at which a member participates.’”
Some elected officials have gotten used to meeting remotely during the pandemic and would like to continue that practice. (In fact, members of the Senate Ethics Committee are so accustomed to meeting online that they had to cancel a recent meeting due to the lack of an in-person quorum.) Politico reports that “at least nine legislators have recently introduced bills to change the Open Meetings Law for a post-pandemic world, including Sen. Jeremy Cooney (D-Rochester). His bill would give governments the option to conduct their meetings online, so long as they post the videos on their websites and give members of the public the chance to watch the broadcast from a public location.” Politico sums up the situation as follows: “As the pandemic draws to a close, officials will need to decide how to balance the clear benefits of an increasingly online government with the loss of transparency brought about by the establishment of a Zoomocracy in which government officials hand down decrees from undisclosed locations.”
On the one hand, allowing online meetings saves travel time for legislators and also allows members of the public to view meetings that they might not be available to attend in person. On the other hand, online meetings limit voters’ opportunities for protest activity and for one-on-one interaction with elected officials.
The best way forward here is to return to 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.