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Local Governments Wrestle With Ways To Keep Remote Access As A Feature Of Public Meetings

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July 29, 2021

By Barrett Seaman—

When restrictions on in-person meetings by local boards and committees in New York State were lifted in late June, it was widely seen as good news—not only as a reflection that the pandemic was finally waning but also because officials and concerned citizens could resume the (metaphorical) hand-to-hand combat that keeps local governments accountable to voters.

Now, a few weeks into what is ostensibly a return to the way things used to be, not everyone is happy. And local governments in villages and towns are experimenting with ways to retain some of the benefits that accrued from remote meetings. After all, Zoom, if nothing else, is convenient.

For 15 months, board members and citizens alike didn’t have to schlep down to village hall on a weekday night but could instead sit at home in front of their laptops, wearing pajama bottoms or sweats. Even committee work sessions were captured on video for those who wanted to monitor issues as they evolved.

As a result, a variety of hybrid (part in-person, part remote) meeting models are emerging, and several state legislators are proposing amendments to the state’s Open Meetings laws that govern governing.

Assemblywoman Sandy Galef of Ossining is drafting legislation in Albany that would allow hybrid meetings going forward.  “We’ve had a lot of people participating in our meetings,“ she observes. “We want to encourage that.”

At the July 19th Tarrytown Board of Trustees meeting, held in person at Village Hall but also livestreamed for viewers at home, taxpayer Dolf Beil noted that during the COVID lockdown, the public had video access to all meetings—not only the Trustees but the Planning, Architectural Review and Zoning Boards, both regular and working sessions. “Today,” he said, “we’re back to video only for the Board of Trustees and Planning Board” for regular meetings but not for work sessions. “I am proposing that full video be returned back so that people can see what’s going on at these meetings.”

By law, the public must be allowed access to all  official meetings, but in some cases, meetings may be held at inconvenient times, like mid-morning on a workday. In Tarrytown, the Trustees’ work sessions are held in an upstairs conference room, where there is currently no camera equipment. Beil contended that restoring video would cost the village only an additional $3,600, but Village Administrator Rich Slingerland countered that that $3,600 would only cover work sessions for one board and that full coverage of all meetings would cost a multiple of that.

In the rivertowns, as throughout the state, governments are tinkering with various ways to fulfill the spirit of the Open Meetings concept while retaining the benefits of remote access.

Even before the pandemic restrictions on open meetings were lifted, Sleepy Hollow’s trustees experimented with hybrid meetings at which some of them were present in village hall while others participated from home. “They were a disaster,” admits Village Administrator Anthony Giaccio. The audio equipment was capable of picking up only one voice at a time, allowing particularly verbose or argumentative voices to dominate sessions.

That limitation proved especially true in a Tarrytown work session, which normally allows for open conversation in which participants routinely talk over or interrupt one another. “Once someone is speaking via Zoom,” says Rich Slingerland, “it’s hard to interject so that they can hear you and other people can speak.”

Irvington has been broadcasting all its public meetings “since forever,” says the village’s Administrator, Larry Schopfer. Public participation has been by voice-only, as has been the case in the other rivertowns villages. Zoom has been the vehicle of choice, though, as elsewhere, the voice of the speaker of the moment overrides others who attempt to speak. And Zoom is vulnerable to so-called “Zoom-bombing” where a tech-savvy intruder can take over the entire event.

“For us,” says Irvington’s Schopfer, “we’ve shifted to YouTube, which is free, and sometimes Facebook (also free). But there is a relatively small, $99 monthly cost for a streaming platform called Boxcast. More robust, inclusive video would require an operator, which Schopfer estimates would cost an additional $50-$75 per meeting.

Dobbs Ferry has installed what appears to be a very sophisticated video system that allows the public to be both heard and seen on a big screen visible to board members and in-person attendees alike. All the rivertown villages will continue to record regular meetings of voting boards and make them available to the public on their websites.

The stickier issue is whether voting board members can participate remotely. Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner complained that when the Governor directed all board members to return to in-person meetings, it meant that, under current Open Meetings law, a member wanting to participate remotely could do so “only if they open up their home to the public while they are participating in the Zoom call,” said Feiner.

”Current law discourages participation,” he argues. “It’s a step backwards.”

Sleepy Hollow did allow Mayor Ken Wray to join a meeting remotely while away on vacation. Irvington has used video conferencing to bring physically absent board members into the process. To comply with the Open Meetings Law, the village includes a notice along with the meeting’s agenda that an otherwise unidentified Trustee or committee member will be participating by video conference from a named location and that the public has the right to attend the meeting at any location, including that one. No doubt to the relief of board members, no one has yet taken the village up on that offer.

State Assemblywoman Amy Paulin of Scarsdale wants to make sure that citizens serving on local government boards and committees aren’t subject to such home invasions going forward. She is crafting a bill that would relieve board and committee members of that obligation by allowing them to participate fully in meetings from remote locations.

Her colleague Sandy Galef thinks that’s going too far. “If you’re an elected officials,” she says, “I think you have to be at a meeting,”

UPDATE, JULY 30, 2021:

Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner issued the following statement:

PROPOSAL TO GOVERNOR AND STATE LEGISLATORS: ALLOW MUNICIPAL BOARDS (TOWN, VILLAGE, CITY, SCHOOL, PLANNING AND ZONING BOARDS TO MEET AGAIN BY ZOOM —
IT WORKED SUCCESSFULLY UNTIL RECENTLY WHEN THE GOVERNOR ORDERED MEETINGS TO BE HELD LIVE. THE DELTA VARIANT HIGHLIGHTS NEED TO PROVIDE LOCAL OFFICIALS WITH OPTIONS
 
The spread of the Delta variant and reports of breakthrough infections have vaccinated people and non vaccinated people feeling nervous. For the non vaccinated the risk of death or hospitalization is high.
 
Local governments, including Greenburgh, are doing what we can to encourage people to get vaccinated. Greenburgh started the VAXUP Westchester initiative months ago – a follow up to the nationally acclaimed Covid Angels program –helping people get vaccinated.
 
I have found that many people still do not take COVID-19 seriously. I attended an event sponsored by a private organization  a few days ago that was held indoors. Only a few people out of a few hundred wore masks. No one asked anyone if they were vaccinated or not.
 
One way for the state and local governments to highlight the seriousness of the Delta variant would be to act differently. Over a month ago the Governor directed that Zoom meetings of municipal boards (Town, City, Village, School Boards, Planning & Zoning Boards, Advisory Boards) be held live–not remotely. 
 
I believe that the Governor and/or NY State Legislature should authorize local governments to continue zoom meetings if they desire. Some Board members might want to meet at the municipal buildings. Others might feel more comfortable meeting remotely via zoom.
 
Many of our Boards include volunteers –some who have medical issues. Allowing these Board members to meet via zoom would encourage their participation.
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