Many government bodies staying course after Open Meetings Law change

PHOTOGRAPHER:
STAN HUDY/LEADER-HERALD Exterior photo of Gloversville City Hall at 3 Frontage Road in Gloversville. Aug. 1, 2021.

By Shenandoah Briere

The Leader-Herald

CAPITAL REGION – A recent amendment to the Open Meetings Law has at least one municipality contemplating going virtual again for their meetings, while many others aren’t making any changes yet.

On Wednesday a special session of the state Legislature convened and among the bills passed was one to allow for virtual meetings until Jan. 15. Those virtual meetings would allow public bodies to conduct business while ensuring the public can still view what happens without worry of spreading the Delta variant.

“Let’s be clear — the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and I’ve heard from government officials across the state who are concerned about the inability of their constituents to access public meetings virtually,” Hochul said in a press release. “This commonsense legislation extends a privilege that not only helps New Yorkers participate safely in the political process, but also increases New Yorkers’ access to their government by allowing for more options to view public meetings. This law will continue to bolster the open and transparent style of government that we’re committed to maintaining in the Empire State.”

Open Meetings Law currently stipulates that any use of teleconference by board members must indicate from where that member is teleconferencing. If videoconferencing is used to conduct a meeting, the public notice for the meeting must inform the public that videoconferencing will be used, identify the locations for the meeting, and state that the public has the right to attend the meeting at any of the locations,” states Open Meetings Law.

The bill is the same as the executive order former Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.

The city of Amsterdam will decide Monday if it will switch to virtual meetings, Mayor Michael Cinquanti said.

“We’re talking about it now,” he said.

He said the board had previously used Zoom and Facebook Live for its meetings and would return to that if that’s what the council wanted.

Right now the council is meeting in person with only 12 seats available to the public due to social distancing measures that have been put in place. Cinquanti said around four or five people on average attend the meetings.

However, Niskayuna will continue with a hybrid model for Town Board meetings, said Supervisor Yasmine Syed.

“For committees, councils and task forces, they are permitted to meet virtually if they choose,” she said.

That model allows for residents to register to attend the Town Board meetings in person, otherwise people can livestream it on the town’s Youtube page.

Glenville was looking at forgoing the hybrid model it has been doing the last few months and switching to just in person, said Supervisor Chris Koetzle. However, after the governor’s recent announcement he said the town will likely stick with the hybrid model for a while. The town uses a site called gotowebinar.com for the virtual portion of its meeting.

“It’s an extra challenge,” Koetzle said, noting there are sometimes sound and camera issues.

Those attending in person who are vaccinated don’t need to wear a mask but those that are unvaccinated need to and must also social distance, Koetzle said. The boardroom at capacity can hold over 150 people.

“That hasn’t happened in years,” Koetzle said.

Gloversville residents can expect in-person meetings to continue, said Mayor Vincent DeSantis.

He said the city does Facebook Live the meetings, but isn’t planning a full move to virtual meetings. DeSantis said the meeting room allows for seven or eight members of the public. If any others want to speak they wait outside the room until called upon, he said.

While Hochul has maintained that her administration will provide a “new era of transparency,” advocates of Open Meetings Law are upset by the lack of transparency the changes produce.

“It is amazing that the public was kept in the dark about Open Meetings Law legislation,” said Paul Wolf, the chairman for New York State Coalition on Open Government, in a press release. “Even worse is the fact that the legislation passed was terrible in that it allows for remote meetings to occur as long as the meetings are live-streamed and they are transcribed afterwards. The legislation passed is missing many important features.”

Some virtual meeting forums do not allow for public comment, rather some municipalities have asked for comments to be sent in ahead of time and read into the record. Those forums also would in some instances not allow any avenues for the press to question a public body that was considering entering a closed door meeting – which can only be done in certain circumstances.

He said the bill actually hinders the public and press. He said a well-rounded bill would have changed the law so that:

Hybrid meetings with both in-person and virtual attendance is allowed

That the public would be able to comment regardless of whether they were attending in person or virtually

Would require meeting videos to be posted online after a meeting took place

“The Governor and legislators should be ashamed as to how this extraordinary session took place and the results it produced,” Wolf said.

By Paul Wager