With COVID cases still spreading across New York, state officials are renewing the virtual meeting option for state and local governments.
Gov. Kathy Hochul is poised to sign a bill approved by the Legislature earlier this week allowing government officials to continue meeting remotely for the duration of the current state disaster emergency.
It extends a law that expires on Saturday that allows local governments to conduct meetings and hearings over online platforms like Zoom or Webex, removing a requirement to hold those events in person.
The new law will allow online-only meetings for as long as the state’s COVID disaster emergency lasts. A state of emergency was first declared by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in early March 2020 and ended in June 2021 as cases dipped.
But the return to relative normal was short lived as Hochul issued an executive order declaring a disaster emergency again in late November as new cases of the coronavirus rose.
The move came as a relief to some officials who’d been facing the prospect of returning to official locations for in-person or hybrid in-person and livestreamed meetings — or having to advertise their personal addresses as meeting places.
The switch to virtual meetings began at the onset of the pandemic via executive order by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Proponents say it has led to soaring civic engagement — while some advocates are concerned that government officials have become harder to access.
“Everyone has learned how to communicate remotely, and it makes things way easier,” said Christian Amato, a member of Community Board 11 in The Bronx, who acknowledges that less tech savvy community members needed more time to adjust.
When Andrew Berman voiced opposition to the SoHo/NoHo rezoning last year, he did so on video, in the public comment segment of a series of virtual meetings — with Manhattan Community Board 2, the City Planning Commission and the City Council.
While Berman, executive director of the nonprofit Village Preservation, says he sees the obvious positives to remote meetings — wider access and COVID safety — he contends they pose significant disadvantages for people who want to express themselves to public officials on important issues.
“When we were testifying before the City Council, we had no idea which members were listening,” Berman said. “We had no way of gauging reaction or interest.”
He also said he couldn’t always share visual presentations, which he would have easily done in person. And he couldn’t hand out informational material to public officials and others present at the meetings, which he would have also done in-person.
In December, the Council and former Mayor Bill de Blasio approved the SoHo/NoHo rezoning plan.
“The virtual element of hearings needs to be done that is much more inclusive,” Berman said, who supports moving to hybrid meetings when concerns over COVID subside.
Present and Absent
Many city agencies and boards have continued to hold remote-only meetings following Mayor Eric Adams’ Jan. 1 arrival at City Hall — and even after he chided financial institutions for reverting back to remote work as COVID cases driven by the highly contagious omicron variant surged.
“You can’t run New York City from home,” he told Bloomberg TV last week.
Adams has kept city workers in their offices. He has also stayed committed to keeping schools open — though on Thursday his schools chancellor, David Banks, said he’s working with school unions to create a remote option for students, possibly by livestreaming classes.
Some city agencies and boards, including the City Planning Commission, have scheduled hybrid in-person and remote hearings for next week or beyond
Yet some city agencies and boards continued to advertise virtual-only meetings for dates after the remote-meeting law’s scheduled expiration — including the New York City Housing Authority, Landmarks Preservation Commission and Employees Retirement System.
And one, the Public Design Commission, announced it would meet in person on Jan. 18 “Unless Governor Hochul further suspends the in-person meeting requirement of the Open Meetings Law.”
Paul Wolf, president of the advocacy group New York Coalition for Open Government, told THE CITY that the ability of people to watch streamed meetings from any location has been a positive. But, he added, “the downside is a lot of places are not doing public comments like they used to.”
“Many places will allow comments in-person, and some are doing them virtually, but many are struggling with that or not doing it at all,” Wolf said.
He said no body or entity has oversight authority to enforce the Open Meetings Law. The New York State Committee on Open Government, a state office that issues advisory opinions on state officials’ responsibility to open their meetings and records, has “no authority to make anybody do anything,” he added.
“In New York, the only way to enforce the law is for a citizen to hire an attorney, which is time consuming and expensive,” he said.
An audit released in December by former Comptroller Scott Stringer found that some Queens community boards excluded the public during remote meetings.
Some boards “did not set aside time for the public to speak before the board took actions such as votes during meetings,” reads the audit’s executive summary.
“Additionally, one Queens community board did not set aside time for the public to speak during a meeting at all,” the summary continued.
Wolf, who also advocates for hybrid meetings going forward, said he hopes the legislature will take action to improve the state’s Open Meetings Law.
“In general, New York’s Open Meetings Law is weaker than a lot of people realize. You know, the fact that public comments are not mandated by law. I think a lot of people are surprised.”