Community board chairs are pushing back on a requirement that their meetings resume in person next month — with some saying they plan to defy state law if necessary to keep their sessions COVID-safe.
And as interpreted by New York’s official watchdog for public access to government, the state’s open meetings law means that every community board member who Zooms into a meeting now technically must advertise in advance the address they are dialing in from — even if that is their home — and open their doors to all who wish to join.
“Opening up people’s homes? That’s insanity. That’s ridiculous,” scoffed Frank Morano, chair of Staten Island’s Community Board 3.
After Gov. Andrew Cuomo suspended in-person government meetings last year in declaring a state of emergency at the dawn of the pandemic, the city’s 59 community boards migrated to online video platforms such as Webex and Zoom.
Civic engagement soared as members of the public, the boards and government agency reps easily participated from the comfort of their homes via the internet, mastering the mute button and other video conferencing features.
But once vaccinations made gathering safer, the state lifted the emergency order on June 24. Community boards were once again subject to the state’s open meetings law — requiring public access to the physical premises of an official gathering.
With the return of board meetings following a summer break coming up in September while virus risks remain, volunteer board members and boards’ government-employed managers are sounding the alarm on the risks of in-person gatherings, pleading with city and state officials to allow them to continue meeting remotely.
“Not only are we still in the midst of this ongoing health crisis, but we’re on a trajectory with cases going up,” said Alexa Weitzman, chair of Queens Community Board 6, which represents Forest Hills and Rego Park. “This is not a time to reconvene in person.”
A ‘21st Century’ Law
Because board members are not employed by the government, the vaccine and testing mandates covering city workers do not apply. Nor can boards screen members of the public in the way that restaurants, gyms and theaters now must.
All in the room must wear masks, according to a City Hall memo, which also directed community boards to keep six feet of distance between participants.
Morano and Weitzman told THE CITY that they plan to keep holding virtual-only meetings, either because of virus concerns or because of a lack of space to socially distance.
“I’m not having in-person meetings,” Weitzman declared. “It’s a moot point.”
But boards should be aware of potential consequences. According to the Committee on Open Government, the state watchdog office, actions taken during the meeting could be invalidated if challenged in court.
In-person community board meetings have already been linked to potential COVID exposures since June.
Two people tested positive for COVID-19 in late July, days after attending Manhattan Community Board 2’s first in-person meeting since the emergency declaration in March 2020, the board’s chair, Jeannine Kiely, said in an Aug. 2 letter to Cuomo.
“Both individuals were fully vaccinated,” Kiely wrote.
She and other board representatives across the boroughs are urging state officials, including Cuomo’s incoming successor, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, to support legislation that would allow community boards and other public bodies to keep meeting remotely.
A bill introduced by State Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) would amend the state’s open meetings law to let representatives participate remotely without having to advertise their homes as public meeting places.
In a statement, Hoylman said in-person meetings are springing back into our lives because “an outdated section of the law that makes virtual meetings impractical.”
He added: “it is time we bring the law into the 21st Century and allow public bodies to more easily meet remotely, particularly as the Delta variant continues to put New Yorkers at risk.”
The state Legislature isn’t slated to be in session until January but could vote before then if a special session is called.
‘Meetings in Parking Lots’
Board representatives said they’re having trouble securing venues large enough to comply with the six-foot requirement.
“It’s just proving harder and harder to find a space,” said Matthew Cruz, district manager for The Bronx’s Community Board 10, which encompasses several communities on the borough’s eastside, including City Island, Co-Op City and Throggs Neck. “At this point, our community board is considering holding meetings in parking lots.”
Board leaders also lament an anticipated drop in attendance with a return to in-person meetings, after experiencing more than a year of what Weitzman called a “participation renaissance.”
But in a late-July advisory opinion, Committee on Open Government Executive Director Shoshanah Bewlay said the current law is unambiguous in requiring all meeting rooms to be physically open to any member of the public.
“This right to observe includes the right to attend and listen to the deliberations of public bodies at any remote location from which a member of a public body participates in the meeting,” she wrote.
Bewlay continued: “This is true even if members of the public body are participating by videoconference from a ‘private’ location such as a private home or while on vacation.”
Cruz said board advocates are “flooding the zone” to preserve remote meetings.
He noted that 11 of 12 district managers in The Bronx sent a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio on Aug. 12, urging him to team “with our state elected officials to support legislation that permits participation by videoconferencing which will allow our members to be counted for voting purposes.”
“If we don’t have virtual meetings, we risk of course further community spread,” Cruz told THE CITY.
On Aug. 5, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards wrote a letter to Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, asking them to “consider revising the Open Meetings Law for the duration of the pandemic.” It was signed by chairs and district managers from all but two of the borough’s 14 boards.
In July, all but one of Manhattan’s 12 community board chairs signed a letter to Cuomo, calling the open meetings law “antiquated” and requesting the governor work with the legislature to allow boards and other public bodies to continue to meet remotely.
Weitzman also wrote a letter to Cuomo in early August, saying in-person is a no-go.
“We cannot, in good faith, ask our board members and members of the public to attend in-person meetings during this time of increased COVID transmission, especially since the technology exists for us to successfully continue meeting remotely,” she wrote.
‘Are You Nuts?’
Morano said he’s looking forward to resuming in-person meetings with board members.
“If you’re not going to get on with your lives, what’s the purpose of getting vaccinated?” he asked.
But while Staten Island’s Community Board 3 expects to hold committee sessions in person, he’s planning on staying remote for the full community board meeting scheduled for Sept. 28, because he cannot find a space with enough capacity to hold members plus guests while maintaining six feet of social distancing.
THE CITY informed Morano that to comply with the state’s open meetings law, board members attending virtually would need to have their addresses publicly posted on early meeting notices and let the public into their homes during the meeting.
The 74-year-old board chair’s reply: “What are you, nuts?”
“They’re a bunch of horses’ asses if they said they’re gonna allow people for city business to go into people’s homes,” he added.