Hybrid public meetings are a pandemic innovation worth keeping – The Boston Globe

Hybrid public meetings are a pandemic innovation worth keeping - The Boston Globe

In many ways the COVID-19 pandemic served as an accelerator — of medical advances, of work arrangements, and of the use of technology to help us stay connected. Public bodies of all kinds — the Legislature, courts, and municipal bodies — scrambled to find a way to get the people’s business done while still complying with at least the spirit of the state’s open meeting law, which generally requires that public business happen in public. With the blessing of state authorities, Zoom and similar communications software became not the exception but the rule at every level of government. Such meetings not only allowed government business to keep happening in public — they generally made meeting better, allowing more people to watch or participate. Advertisement The rules that allowed such remote and/or hybrid meetings were temporarily extended after the public health emergency was officially lifted, but now those temporary extensions are due to expire in March 2025. But who would want to move backward? So Governor Maura Healey’s Municipal Empowerment Act — which is largely about allowing cities and towns the option of raising taxes on hotel stays, restaurant meals, and motor vehicles — also includes provisions for making permanent pandemic rules around the now much loved outdoor dining, cocktails to go, and hybrid public meetings. Unfortunately, however, the governor’s approach on those hybrid public meetings falls far short of a full-throated endorsement and could easily result in a whole lot of backsliding by municipalities. And as a coalition of open meeting advocates wrote in a recent letter to the governor and Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll, it represents “a step backward.” The open meeting provision in the governor’s legislation allows hybrid meetings but doesn’t require them. “Giving every government body covered by the OML (Open Meeting Law) complete discretion about how to provide public access to their meetings means people with disabilities, parents with young children, people with limited transportation, and others will be completely shut out when city councils, select boards or school committees decide to hold meetings exclusively in person,” the letter said. Advertisement Among those signing the letter were the ACLU of Massachusetts, Common Cause Massachusetts, the Disability Law Center, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association (of which the Globe is a member), and the New England First Amendment Coalition. The Massachusetts Open Meeting Law will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, said Geoff Foster, executive director of Common Cause in Massachusetts. “And that law happened for a reason. It happened because at the time too many municipalities were engaging in an abundance of executive sessions,” shutting out the public unnecessarily from watching their officials doing the public’s business. Once the Open Meeting Law was passed, it set a statewide standard for public access. The governor’s approach, however, “would create a patchwork of standards based on your ZIP code,” Foster said. There has already been some backsliding on hybrid meetings, according to Rick Glassman, director of advocacy for the Disability Law Center. The center has received complaints from those who are immunocompromised or have a disability that makes in-person attendance impossible or someone who has to care for a disabled relative — all of whom wanted to participate in town meeting or a school committee or select board meeting. “Leaving hybrids up to the discretion of town leadership is a huge mistake,” said Lauren Wilton, an attorney who is disabled. “For all the lip service of being uncomfortable with technology, or because of the expense, the real reason is many leaders do not want hybrid participation because they don’t want the kind of accountability and transparency that remote accessibility and recordings [of the proceedings] afford.” Advertisement Wilton said that after an enormously popular 2022 hybrid Town Meeting in Milford, the following year the meeting was livestreamed but the town warrant announcing the meeting told voters that if they needed an accommodation to participate they could contact the town administrator. Wilton fears that kind of backsliding will only grow if the approach suggested in Healey’s bill is passed. “In an administration that’s supposed to be for transparency, this [law] is a huge disappointment,” Glassman said. And any concern about the lack of funding for technology, he contends, is something of a red herring. During the pandemic — and now — there are pots of money available to municipalities to bring in the kind of technology that makes hybrid meetings doable. Some communities have already used American Rescue Plan funds. The $42 billion federal Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program and the $2.75 billion Digital Equity Act have already passed along $6 million in planning money to Massachusetts — to fund the development of a five-year action plan. The programs prioritize working with local entities; the Digital Equity Act’s “covered populations” include people with disabilities. In January, Healey filed a $1.25 billion IT bond bill, which includes $30 million for a Municipal Fiber Grant Program and $25 million for a Community Compact IT Grant Program that includes local technology projects that “make it easier for residents to interact and transact with their local government.” Its passage would certainly eliminate cost as an issue in the debate of hybrid open meetings. Advertisement But already more than 60 percent of all city councils, select boards, and school committees in the state are either fully hybrid or live streamed, according to a survey done last spring by the coalition of open meeting advocates. A free-standing piece of legislation supported by the groups — which already has 54 cosponsors in the Legislature — would make hybrid meetings for public bodies the rule permanently. It would provide for the possibility of a “hardship waiver” for communities, which would have to file with the attorney general’s office. But it also mandates that “All public bodies shall ensure remote access to meetings is accessible to persons with disabilities and provided in such a manner as to ensure effective communication and equal opportunity to participate.” The bill also sets out conditions for when a person’s remote access can be restricted — just as it does for anyone who disrupts a public meeting. As for the recent spate of cyberattacks known as Zoom bombing, well, a combination of better technology (including the use of remote “waiting rooms”) and, when appropriate, after-the-fact law enforcement would go a long way in tackling that distraction. Advertisement The advent of hybrid meetings brought government at all levels right into our living rooms. For the disabled, in particular, it became the communications equivalent of what one disability lawyer called Ramps 2.0. It made a part of government accessible. Openness and accessibility are at the heart of our democratic process. This is no time for backsliding. Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.