Public officials at all levels of government are examining what the new normal will be as restrictions on physical meetings are eased. The requirement for virtual meetings during the past year or so has had both positives and negatives. Some cite the ability of officials to avoid unwanted interactions with protesters, the press, and the general public, along with a lack of inclusivity. Others point to the shift having made government more accessible for members of the public who might not be able to participate in traditional meetings – due to factors such as scheduling or physical disabilities.
Laws may need to be permanently updated to reflect the shifting state of the pandemic. New York State, for example, has an Open Meetings Law which was temporarily suspended. This statute states that any “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.” The executive order that permitted fully virtual meetings has been rescinded, requiring state and local governmental bodies to now return to the old way of doing business.
“The Open Meetings Law is about public participation and access to our government,” said the NYS Conference of Mayors’ Peter Baynes. “We had some members of our organization who felt that the use of remote meetings actually increased the level of public participation in their meetings, and felt that they should have that option down the road.”
Currently, many government meetings are hybrids. A bill recently introduced in New York State would give government entities the option to conduct their meetings online, as 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. Some consider this to be a model for future meetings, balancing pre-pandemic transparency standards with the advantages of being online.