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Hochul signs legislation extending virtual public meetings


Fri, Sep 3rd 2021 01:20 pm

Legislation (S.50001/A.40001) allows New Yorkers to participate in state & local government meetings virtually to reduce risk of COVID-19 spread; helps people with disabilities participate in government

Gov. Kathy Hochul recently signed legislation (S.50001/A.40001) extending virtual access to public meetings under New York state's Open Meetings Law, which allows people to virtually participate in local government meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The legislation, which was initially implemented by executive order during last year's state of emergency, allows state and local government meetings that are normally held in person to be held remotely instead, as long as the public has the ability to view or listen to the meeting and as long as the meeting is recorded and later transcribed. This statutory change will reduce the need for congregation at public meetings while the delta variant is prevalent, while ensuring public business can continue.

"Let's be clear: The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and I've heard from government officials across the state who are concerned about the inability of their constituents to access public meetings virtually," Hochul said. "This commonsense legislation extends a privilege that not only helps New Yorkers participate safely in the political process, but also increases New Yorkers' access to their government by allowing for more options to view public meetings. This law will continue to bolster the open and transparent style of government that we're committed to maintaining in the Empire State."

Meetings can be held either over a video service such as Zoom or by phone. There is no change to the requirement that public bodies must provide notice to constituents that a meeting is taking place, and they are required to inform constituents how to access the public meeting virtually.

On March 12, 2020, executive order 202.1 suspended the portion of New York State law requiring meetings to take place in person, and authorized public meetings to be held virtually. On June 25, 2021, the state disaster emergency ended, removing the provision suspending the law.

New York State Association of Counties President Jack Marren said, "Counties applaud Gov. Hochul, Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins and Speaker Heastie for taking the extraordinary step of convening a special session to enact legislation granting counties boards and other public bodies the authority to convene meetings remotely, in the unfortunate event that this becomes necessary. As the governor recently stated, local elected officials from across the state have called for this temporary authority given uncertainties with the delta COVID-19 variant and we appreciate the governor listening to the concerns of local governments. We serve New Yorkers best when all branches of government are working together constructively, and this special session was an example of local governments working in partnership with the governor, majority leader, speaker and all state lawmakers to ensure government continues to function safely and efficiently as we fight COVID-19."

New York State Conference of Mayors Executive Director Peter A. Baynes said, "During the pandemic's first 15 months, executive order 202.1 allowed public bodies to conduct meetings remotely. This experiment proved to be effective and popular from both a public health and governmental administration perspective. By all accounts, public attendance at local government meetings increased while health risks were minimized. Consequently, giving local governments the authority to once again conduct meetings remotely will allow government business to continue while keeping their constituents healthy and safe. This is especially important in light of the emergence of the delta variant and the recent increase in COVID cases across the state. Importantly, the governor's program bill makes no changes to the law regarding the right to public participation, which allows for a local governing body to establish its own policy."

Empire Justice Center President and CEO Kristin Brown said, "The public has the right to attend meetings of public bodies, listen to debate and watch the decision-making process, and a pandemic or any other emergency should not be an excuse to shutter our democratic process. As a statewide legal service provider for low-income New Yorkers, we believe transparency and accessibility are especially important to people who may have a hard time getting time off work, ability or resources to travel in order to meaningful share their viewpoints with government officials. We thank Gov. Hochul for taking immediate action to ensure transparency in our government."

Association of Towns Executive Director Gerry Geist said, "As the COVID-19 delta variant spreads and infections rate rise, towns across New York have expressed an increasing need for renewed authority to hold public meetings remotely. By giving public bodies this authority until Jan. 15, 2022, Gov. Hochul's program bill amending Open Meetings Law perfectly responds to this call while ensuring optimal citizen participation and engagement. The Association of Towns strongly supports this legislation and thanks Gov. Hochul and the Legislature for listening to and working with local governments."

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